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WORDSWORDSWORDS#3 (Cliche/Couldn'tCareLess/Hold the Fort)

More change! It was probably about twenty years ago that I first noticed the appearance of the word "cliche" as an adjective in addition to its use as a noun. A cliche, of course, means a phrase or statement that has become trite and tiresome with overuse. The word, as you would imagine by its sound, comes from the French word for "stereotypical" or "hackneyed", which made its debut in 1881. My essays from high school were always swimming in red ink (a cliche) because my teachers would invariably mark my phrasing with the word "cliche". I guess I just liked using commonly known idioms and locutions. I'm sure I described people as being "head over heels" in love or said that I was "scared out of my wits" about an upcoming test. The one that rankles me the most from my students is the use of "relatable" to describe someone's personality or experience. The word really means nothing specific at all.

Below: An example (or more) of the cliche in sports.

But there was never a time when I heard a phrase like "That's so cliche!" That wouldn't have made any sense. I might have heard "That's such a cliche" or said that someone's argument was "tired and cliched", using the adjectival form of "cliche". But "cliche" as an adjective? Never.

Jan Freeman, language expert from the Boston Globe and author of the blog Throw Grammar from the Train, recently commented on this issue, saying that the: "adjectival cliche is moving up fast. In expressions where there's a clear choice between cliche and cliched, the adjective is cliche about half the time. In most of those cases, it sneaks in by way of quotations - "It sounds cliche, but he really believed it'' (Miami Herald), or "I was brought up to love everybody, as cliche as that may sound'' (People magazine).* But it's not all spoken-word sloppiness: In the earliest citation I could find, a 1979 Washington Post review of the miniseries "Studs Lonigan,'' the writer himself says of father-son conflict, "It is an old cycle, so cliche it hurts.'' Seems like it's more like 99% of the time in my world. Even when I hear people on TV use "cliche", they are perfectly comfortable employing it as an adjective.

Here is the kind of study the Oxford English Dictionary undertakes on such an issue:

As you can see, "so cliche" took off about twenty years ago, when I first took notice. Jan Freeman writes: "By now, I think, "so cliche" seems normal to a lot of younger speakers and writers. And I have a soft spot for it myself, as I confessed in that 2003 column, because it's such a natural choice: Though cliche came into English as a noun, it retains its French form- and that form is a past participle, perfectly happy to be used as an adjective. English is full of such French words, some used as nouns (divorcee, souffle, negligee), others as adjectives (passe, flambe). Even a stickler, it seems to me, might find it in his or her heart to approve so cliche. "

While I will never use "cliche" as an adjective, and I will always mark it in red, I acknowledge it's a losing battle. I feel much the same way about the solecism "I could care less." It's not yet correct in Standard Written English, but it might not be far off. It's the subject of a long battle. Here is a 2018 letter to Merriam-Webster about usage:

What is the Difference between "I Couldn't Care Less" and "I Could Care Less"? Tuesday July 24th 2018


How do I know when to use "couldn't care less" and when to use "could care less" if I don't care at all about something? Which one is the correct sentence? — Koustav , India


If you say you "couldn't care less" about something, it means you do not care about it at all. You cannot care less than you do. Below are some examples of how the phrase is used:

  • Sherry couldn't care less what restaurant they go to. [=she does not care at all what restaurant they go to]

  • The man said he couldn't care less who his children marry as long as they are happy. [=he does not care who his children marry. He only cares that they are happy]

Sometimes you will hear people say "could care less" in the same way. Below are some examples of this:

  • I could care less if you leave.

  • She can order whatever she wants; her date could care less.

English teachers and grammarians will say that "could care less" is wrong because it should mean the opposite of "couldn't care less." Logically, if you could care less, it means you do care some. But in informal speech people often use "could care less" to mean they don’t care at all.

But the last example today holds out hope. People who say "Hold down the fort" are just wrong. We should fight this fight! General Sherman first gave the order to "Hold the fort" back in Civil War days. It meant then and means now that the person speaking the words is putting you in charge, expecting that you will keep order and protect "the fort" from any threats. Where "down" enters into it is a mystery.

I can't express my opinion on these last two phrases better than my British friend David Mitchell does in his Soapbox video, so I will give him the final word (a cliche?):

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