Sunday 24 March 2013

On cliché

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nam blandit iaculis mattis. Integer suscipit eros ut velit volutpat sed ullamcorper est euismod. 

And so on. Recognise it?

Lorem Ipsum is still used a lot in the printing and typesetting industry. It's been the industry's standard dummy text since the 1500s, when an unknown printer scrambled a galley of type to produce a sample book and more than five hundred years later it's still with us. I suppose most of us came across it first in a Letraset format (remember Letraset?), which used passages of Lorem Ipsum in its catalogues and sample sheets from the 1960s until quite recently. Later on desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker used versions, and you can come across it in all kinds of contexts.

As Latin it's quite meaningless - designed to deflect the eye from any lexical significance and make the reader appreciate the arrangement of the text. It's the typesetter's equivalent of Finnegans Wake and, as it happens, an early example of a cliché. 

The word (as I expect you know but I didn't) 'cliché'' derives originally from typesetting, and referred to a printing plate cast from moveable type (also known as a stereotype, another expression that's gone down in the world). It may have onomatopoeic origins, coming from the sound made when the molten stereotyping metal is poured onto the matrix to make a printing plate, which presumably involved some kind of clicking noise (as in French cliquer). Setting type one letter at a time was a slow and painstaking process and so, if a phrase was likely to recur, the type would not be broken up but kept for future use. The term cliché soon came to refer to any ready-made, high frequency phrase likely to be repeated without variation (as might, for instance, be used repeatedly in contracts and other legal documents). In its original usage, cliché had no negative associations but now, and usually as a plural noun or as an adjective, it has come to mean hackneyed, derivative, unoriginal and as such, a Bad Thing. But perhaps that's because we're exposed to so many forms of the written and spoken word, and to so much in the way of films and television and gormless journalism in all media that we're bound sooner or later to come across something  that (with a feeling that might be called déjà lu) seems to us to be clichéd.

Children have no concept of cliché and seem, in fact, to thrive on the repetitive and familiar. At what age does this change? And what exactly is our adult objection to a writer who employs cliché? Perhaps it's a sense that she is wasting our valuable time, that verbal cliché is usually accompanied by plenty of dullness in plot, character and the other things that make for good writing. Evelyn Waugh once paid Christopher Isherwood the most wonderful compliment when he wrote in a review that 'Mr Isherwood is not a writer who struggles to avoid cliché because a cliché would never occur to him'.  

I recently came across a phrase used by anthropologists that seems to me to be more useful than 'stereotype' or 'cliché'. The term is 'a perfect specific' and applies to any unambiguous signifier (verbal or visual) that an audience will agree stands legitimately and neutrally for something in particular. Examples might be the Chancellor's battered despatch box on Budget day, or the flashing blue light of an emergency vehicle, or the white smoking emerging from a stovepipe chimney to announce the appointment (if that's the right word), or the Mona Lisa as a perfect specific not only or high art but of enigmatic genius, ineffability and (depending on your point of view) a certain naffness. Of course the appeal of a perfect specific is in many cases is not to a sophisticated audience, but that's neither here nor there. My point is that 'perfect specifics' are useful, legible signs that need little or no mediation between the source and reception. They do their job in a quiet and effective and unfussy way. We need more of these, surely? Society builds a consensus around them.

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