Posted by: Jack Henry | June 4, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Clichés

Dear Editrix,

I just heard a radio commercial refer to the phrase “Get by with a little help from your friends” as a cliché. Isn’t it just quoting a song? Or was this a saying before it became a famous song lyric? If not, how old does the song have to be for it to become a cliché?


Dear Jane,

This was interesting to investigate, so thank you for the question. According to Wikipedia, a cliché is “an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”

It is more a matter of overuse that makes a cliché than it is a matter of time, though of course the more time that passes, the more overused a phrase could become. I love this quote I found from a French poet, Gerard de Nerval, about clichés: “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile."

I went on to look more into song lyrics as clichés, and found a funny article on a website called Sonicbids, called “8 Terrible Lyric Clichés You Need to Stop Using in Your Songs (And What to Write Instead).” Here are a few of the items from the article that I hope will entertain you.

If you’re 16 and in your first band, you can be forgiven for coming up with the same metaphors and phrases that have occurred to thousands before you, but if you want to be a real lyricist, you should be aware of these overused lyrical concepts. It’s the only way to avoid them!

"It cuts like a knife"

This is not only a common metaphor for love, it’s a stupid one. Love makes one feel lots of things, but it’s never once made me feel as though I was cut by a knife. Stabbed, perhaps, but not sliced.

Try this instead: If one must use a painful metaphor for love, consider some other sources of pain and/or death (probably skipping drowning – that one’s overused, too): choking, electrocution, burning, gunshots, blunt-force trauma, road rash, or some sort of allergic reaction….

When everything happens "tonight"

Is there a word or syllable missing in your lyric? Just add the word “tonight.” This word haunts the end of millions of phrases, more common than a comma or a period….

Try this instead: The worst thing about this one is the total lack of any sense of time in most lyrics that feature it. It’s always “tonight,” a night that is going on now and will never end…and it would be more effective in future tense.

For example, “You’re my baby tonight”…is a lot less interesting than whatever is going to happen later, creating a sense of tension. “I’m crawling out my window tonight,” or “Meet me at the railroad tracks tonight” are examples.

"Things aren’t always what they seem"

Well, no, they’re not, but this trite vaguery doesn’t actually mean anything,

Try this instead: Maybe this concept of confusion and uncertainty can be expressed more easily through music than lyrics. That’s what psychedelic music is, right? Grab your wah-wah pedal and soak those tracks in delay. [KC – I am not a musician, but I suddenly feel the need for my own wah-wah pedal.]

As for the phrase “I get by with a little help from my friends,” maybe it was wonderful and new when the Beatles first sang it, but too many advertisements and speeches and yearbook signatures turned it into a cliché.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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