At the end of the day, are clichés acceptable?
When all hands are on deck and you’re spitballing ideas for a cutting-edge product or a new brand campaign, is it better to move the needle or move the goalposts? Break down the silos or push the envelope? Close the loop or open the kimono? If you’re brainstorming a solution, what kind of solution should it be—seamless, custom, bespoke, tailored, scalable, enterprisewide or end-to-end? Are your concepts intended to be transformative, disruptive or merely table stakes?
When the rubber hits the road and it’s time to walk the walk, are you better off biting the bullet or drinking the Kool-Aid?
At the end of the day, of course, it is what it is. That’s the bottom line.
At this point you may be grinning or cringing. Either way, you’ll have noticed that we’ve doled out a generous serving of current bizspeak, banality and blather in the first three paragraphs. Adding more would have been a piece of cake, a veritable slam-dunk: In the pipeline, outside the box. Touch base, circle back. Balls in the air, boots on the ground. Drill down, scale up.
But let’s cut to the chase. This isn’t a screed against all jargon, clichés and metaphorical overreach. Just an earnest plea for moderation.
It’s common for academics, editors and style cops to excoriate the use of clichés, corporatese and bizspeak in email, marketing content and even informal conversation with the vehemence normally directed at termites or toxic mold. Articles with titles like “15 Expressions You Should Never Use,” “24 Words and Phrases That Make You Sound Boring” abound on the Internet. Once you’ve written a draft, they insist, you must scour it meticulously and stamp out every “paradigm shift,” “change agent” and “deep dive” you find. Better yet, don’t use those phrases in the first place. Ever.
We agree that there is virtue in striving for originality, concision and freshness—in saying things in a way no one else has. But a certain level unoriginality is impossible to avoid. Language is shot through with words and idioms that have been used time and again. (Indeed, “time and again” is an example.) There’s no benefit to scrubiung our writings and utterances clean of them.
Used with care, clichés, jargon and idiomatic expressions can provide a useful shorthand—a means of communicating complex ideas visually, succinctly and colorfully and help create a common vocabulary for writer and reader. When we describe a trading process as “frictionless” or a market perspective as “brand agnostic,” our audience knows exactly what we mean. Sometimes a cliché does the job better than an original phrase.
Consider Hillary Clinton’s tribute to the late Madelyn Albright: “She pushed the envelope her entire life.” Or Anita Hill on the admittedly ambitious goals of her latest book: “It’s a bit like trying to boil the ocean.” In a recent New York Times story on vertical farming, Brent de Jong, CEO of Agrico Acquisition Corporation, said, “Everyone has their own secret sauce.” He wasn’t talking about cooking.
The question, of course, is how much jargon is too much? When does a cliché impede rather than facilitate good writing? Where should we draw the line?
We’ll circle back to you on that.