Aren’t clichés actually dead metaphors or similes? But if that’s true, then how can "He was tall, dark and handsome" be a cliché? An individual may literally be tall, dark and handsome.
Published: December 8, 2011
A: Dead metaphors may be clichés, but not all clichés are dead metaphors. Let me explain.
Dead metaphors are metaphors that have been so overused that they’ve lost their figurative qualities. For example:
When he returned from vacation, memos, documents and vouchers were strewn across his desk. He took off his coat and dove in.
This metaphor—to dive in—was once fresh, but has become so common that readers don’t think of the imagery of water and a diver so much as the meaning of the phrase—to immerse fully in a task. Dead metaphors are easy to come by; you’ll often hear them in daily language:
step up to the plate
the ball is in your court
a clean slate
Clichés, on the other hand, rely on overly familiar language, whether figurative or literal. They’re strings of words that have been overused. Dead metaphors fall into this category, as do literal phrases like “dark and stormy night,” “back in the old days,” and yes, “tall, dark and handsome.”
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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