Talking turkey for a cliché-free year


Platitude, the Macquarie Dictionary OnlineLately, friends and clients have been asking me what we can do about the growth of cliché and platitude in everyday language — at home, at work, and in the media. 

I want to suggest an approach that has generated some very satisfied customer responses from organisations I have visited. Feedback from these Fortune 500 firms frequently shows people are fascinated to learn the fundamentals of formula-free phraseology.

The '12 Evasions' program is as simple as reading a calendar. For each month of the year, nominate a hackneyed phrase, then do everything you can to avoid speaking that phrase — substitute a synonym, discuss a different angle on the issue at hand, talk about a different topic, make turkey noises, or even just go silent.

Once that month is over, you can use the phrase as often as you like, for the rest of your life, because you will be back in control of that phrase. And that's the aim: we have to control our language; not let our language control us.

This program fits particularly well with a 'new year's resolution' format. That means it is best introduced at your end-of-year strategic planning retreat.

Feel free to use the following list of phrases I have developed for 2009 — although naturally I expect payment of a certain consideration for the intellectual property.

January — 'perfect storm'

This was voted the most overused vacuous phrase in the USA for 2007, so clearly there is a need to rein it in. It's not as popular in Australia yet, so it makes a manageable starting phrase for your team's campaign.

February — 'journey'
At a wedding I went to recently, the celebrant was moved to explain that the couple's premarital travels together had been 'like a journey'. Wow! This is a madly, badly overused term.

March — 'singing from the same songsheet'
Contacts in the public service have been shocked by this cliché's meteoric rise in usage. Its metaphoric resonances, however dimly remembered, remind us that what we say should aspire to beauty.

April — 'going forwards'
I know a lot of us will find this phrase a hard one to kick, but by now we have had three months of preparation. It's time to assert our ownership of all those sayings we just don't think about when we say them.

May 'in terms of'
This is a truly hard-wired product of the linguistic autopilot. If we can remember our commitment to ourselves and our team-mates before we say it, we are most of the way towards achieving the aims of this program.

June — any form of the word 'enhance'
Don Watson brought this killer platitude to our attention back when the Y2K bug was getting discredited, but it remains strong in Australia. The challenge to public and corporate sectors alike is to discuss your organisation's new budget measures without it. That is why we tackle it in June.

July — 'a red hot go'
NSW premier and linguistics expert Nathan Rees has uttered this phrase one too many times. Now it's time to for us all to spend some time without it. A month should suffice. Then, if we say it again in August, or during the footy finals, we know it will be because we mean it.

August — any form of the word 'impact'
Grammar has really lost out in our surge to cutting-edge innovate this abstract noun! Uses as a transitive verb, as lead metaphor in a checklist, and as reference-lite time-filla have proliferated rapidly. Try 'affect' (verb), 'effect' (noun), and 'thingwaybob' (blank noise) as alternatives for a month.

September — 'innovate,' 'innovation,' and/or 'innovative'
Can an organisation do anything new without these polysyllabic platitudes? September will provide a great opportunity to find out.

October — 'hospital pass'
Traditionally only an issue in rugby country, this metaphor has been steadily spreading into Australian football jurisdictions for several years now. The challenge with giving this one up is that we might have to describe what we actually mean.

November — 'silos'
Good for cereal crops, a pragmatic approach to workmates who hate each other, but somehow this term has come automatically to mean a bad state of affairs.

December — 'at the end of the day'
Thematically appropriate for a month of 'closure'. Mark McCrindle tells us that Australians found this the most irritating cliché in 2008. Expect to be so good at the 12 Evasions Program by now that you'll have no trouble batting away one of the most inane prefabrications in phraseological history. For just that one month, of course.

Tom ClarkTom Clark lectures in Public Relations and Professional Writing at Victoria University. He researches and publishes in the field of rhetorical studies. He also writes poetry, some of which has been published in Eureka Street this year.


Topic tags: tom clark, 12 evasions program, cliches, platitudes, silos, at the end of the day, impact, perfect storm



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Existing comments

Thank you Tom Clarke. Why are these and so many other cliches entering our lexicon? Laziness? Poor English education? Whatever the reason they have become 'front and centre' of our speech and writings and hardly 'enhance' our 'striving for excellence'. Perhaps they do not 'drill down' (check recent Government Docs)sufficiently to provide 'logical solutions'.

'Whatever'! It is good that you have 'stepped up to the plate' (how many play baseball in Australia? why not wicket?). Your article is likely to have a real impact in terms of alerting the people of Australia as we go forward on our journey together singing from the same songsheet, because at the end of the day if we do so we will avoid the perfect storm and be confident that our future ( "that is to come" - Peter Sellers)will be forever enhanced.
Jim Carty | 10 December 2008

Thanks for this one. The trendy phrases we hear really make me grit my teeth. How do you feel about 'touching base' and 'Too easy!? Grrrrr...........
Vena Boman | 10 December 2008

For the Cliche Clutch: What of "It's all good!" when by all the evidence it manifestly ain't!
gerard | 10 December 2008

'Working families' is my vote for the most overused phrase of 2008. Whatever happened to lazy, funny beach-loving families? Or, God help us, people?
Penelope | 10 December 2008

Not a problem, Growing the business, upskilling the nation, We need closure. Please do another article...
Marianny Brown | 10 December 2008

I absolutely agree with Tom Clark's literary discourse that positions the reader to appreciate the way the author privileges the cliche. I also absolutely think that these sayings foreground binary opposed concepts that are just as absolutely hackneeyed. Stepping up to the plate is absolutely the antonym of backflipping. A red hot go negates a failure to materialise. Many of Mss Throsby's Morning guests have an absolute conversation with her about their journeys. Most of these interviews,down the track,may be deconstrucred and often produce an opposed reading of the text. Tom add post modernism's tortured and arbitrary misuse of our language to your topics to be granted a year off.
terry oberg | 10 December 2008

There are worse cliches than those named by Tom Clark - except perhaps the 'journey' thing which is done to death. Think about 'at this point in time' for starters. And what about 'team'? That everyone seems to be belong to a team these days requires some cogent deconstruction!
Caroline Ryan | 10 December 2008

What a clever article, especially the way the writer manages to sprinkle a few of his own cliches throughout. "A different angle on the issue at hand" is of course "two for the price of one". Then there is "strategic planning" ... "rein it in" ... "meteoric rise" in the first half alone. The responses have followed his lead, but some tended to overdo it.

I nominate two favourites of mine: "paradigm", because I don't know what it means, and "share with you" the ultimate warning of the sincerity of the speaker. Actually, it might even be a paradigm of sincerity.
Frank O'Sshea | 10 December 2008

What about spike, meaning a 'rapid increase' in the speech of those who don't realise that it doesn't become a spike until it hits a peak and starts coming straight back down again.
Gavan | 10 December 2008

Yeah, nah, cliches suck, hey?
Charles Boy | 10 December 2008

Not a problem, Tom. I'll trial it!
JV | 10 December 2008

I enjoyed reading your list of clichés, but would have included the most overused word of all: robust. It used to be used to describe physique, but is now used as a qualifying adjective for almost anything - from 'robust debate' to 'robust casserole'.
Terry O'Neill | 10 December 2008

Philip | 11 December 2008

What about 'engaging'? Try counting the number of times that word is used
in any address or interview!
CARLA JENNINGS | 13 December 2008

'In the first instance' for January, maybe? Perhaps you could 'talk to that'? Or maybe 'unpack it'?

I think we could get some learnings from that. In terms of how to dialogue.
Virginia Tressider | 15 December 2008

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