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Monday, May 14, 2012

Idioms versus Cliches


In the Freelance Editing Network on LinkedIn, I’ve been following an interesting discussion on idioms and clichés.
A Freelance Editing Network member who teaches English as a second language asked the group how to determine what constitutes an idiom and how it differs from a cliché. One astute member explained that an idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from the collection of words it contains, whereas a cliché is a phrase that loses its value through overuse. As I see it, comparing clichés to idioms is like comparing apples to oranges, an idiom in itself. I’m dead set (a cliché) against using worn-out phrases, but aren’t some idioms worn out, as well? Don’t we all have too many skeletons in the closets of our writing? Don’t we need to go through every piece and destroy overused expressions, wordy writing, and the whole nine yards?

A Japanese friend trying to read my sister’s memoir brought idioms to my attention recently when she arrived at a gathering with a notebook filled with idioms in my sister’s book, none of which she understood. She had learned English in Japan, but her classes never covered the many colorful idioms that we Americans insert in our writing and speech. As she read off the list, I searched for suitable translations. “What does ‘skeletons in the closet’ mean? What about ‘the whole nine yards?’”

The real question is whether such phrases spice up our language or simply fill it with words that must be translated to be understood. In my opinion, voice makes the difference. In formal narrative, our writing should remain crisp, but dialogue and casual writing beg for idiomatic phrases that say much more than the words that form them. In other words, idioms say a mouthful, and that’s the name of that tune.

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