What makes for a cliche?

I found myself in hearty agreement with this list of the worst corporate jargon, phrases which are either unclear, essentially meaningless, trendy, or just made-up. I would add to this list “leverage”—it’s a noun, not a verb, folks!—“best practices,” “efficient and effective,” “deliverables,” and “driving results.”

In my relatively new job in the world of higher education, I have a new set of clichés to avoid: “rigorous academics” – I think this phrase shows up on just about every college’s website and marketing brochures – “small class sizes,” “students are not just a number,” “committed to excellence,” “respectful of diversity” … and so on.

These are not bad things, of course—I just object to the nauseating overuse of the same words to describe them. Perhaps I’m just a word snob, a marketing writer with lots of pet peeves, or I’m subject to the prevalent desire in our culture for all things new, exciting, and original (regardless of their actual quality). But I think it’s about more than just a cosmetic adjustment, more than just trying to swap out tired words for fresh, unique ones. The overuse starts to empty these words of their meaning. The more often we see different institutions use them, the more difficult it is for them to distinguish themselves from each other, and the duller the words become to us.

Sometimes familiarity with certain words is a good thing—for example, I’m thinking of Scripture passages we’ve had memorized for years, or the prayers and proclamations of church liturgy. These are foundational, unalterable truths, and we can never overuse them. But at the same time, we continually expound them in sermons, prayers, and songs, developing our understanding of them. We remain tethered to the words handed down to us, yet we indulge our desire for new expressions of them that help us come to a deeper understanding.

What clichés have you encountered lately? Are there any truths buried within them that deserve a fresh description?

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