Play on Words: How to Use Cliches

Play on Words: How to Use Cliches

“Let’s have some new cliches.” – Samuel Goldwyn

Couldn’t agree more, Sammy boy.

So tell me, dear reader, are you, like me, all hot and bothered by predictable phrases clogging up the arteries of a good conversation?

As I sit here putting the finishing touches on this blog post – crossing the T’s, dotting the lowercase J’s and whatnot – I’m struck by all of the trite axioms that work themselves into my writing, as well as the writing of many others. And then I wonder why certain phrases become so popular, that we forget that there infinite combinations of words that can be strung together to create even better phrases.

Are your feathers ruffled by people peppering their acceptance speeches with meaningless maxims that everyone’s heard ad nauseam?

Are overused expressions in popular movies and TV shows driving you up the wall with their lack of originality and creativity?

If you said “yes” to any of these questions, then this blog post is for you. Here, I will explain how you can take the tried and tired remarks that are plaguing our discourse and turn them into casual slogans so witty and memorable that future generations will appropriate them and run them into the ground.

Sound good?

Cool. Let’s get this show on the road less traveled.

What are Cliches and Why Do I Hate Them So?

A cliche is a sentence, phrase, or aphorism that expresses a well-known idea or common thought that has lost its impact through overuse. While most of these sayings contain useful bits of advice, because they’ve peppered unnecessarily into so many conversations, their original meaning falls on deaf ears, having been stripped of whatever made them so wise to begin with. Many of us roll our eyes even before a cliche is uttered, as it is usually telegraphed to us with yet another cliche (e.g. “You know what they say…”).

And for most, a cliche is used when they can’t think of anything else to say that is meaningful or impactful. Cliches are the creative shortcuts we take when we’re too lazy, uninspired, or impatient to take the creative scenic route.

Below are a few examples of cliches:

  • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
  • Blood is thicker than water.
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • There’s no place like home.
  • Slow and steady wins the race.

However, what if there was a way that we could take apart a cliche and turn it into something memorable and hilarious? Read on to find out how.

How Cliches are Used in Comedy

For years, comedians and humorists have been taking timeworn turns of phrase and amending them for their own whimsical purposes, turning them into classic one-liners, jokes, and anecdotes, and can be found in movies, TV shows, columns, stand-up acts, and more. Because the process of transforming cliches can be quite intricate, some work better in print while others work better when said aloud.

Below are a few examples of how you can reform cliches to humorous effect:

  • “You know what they say, where there’s a will, there’s a family fighting over it.” – Matt Wohlfarth
  • “A fool and his money are soon partying.” – Steven Wright
  • “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes.” – Jack Handey
  • “Who am I to stone the first cast?” -Walter Winchell, in a review of an opening Broadway show
  • “I tried to give up heroin, but my efforts were all in vein.” – George Carlin
  • “I wish people would stop making fun of fat people. They have enough on their plates.” – Eddie Murphy
  • “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx

How You Can Breathe New Life into Sayings that Just Won’t Die

There are several ways that you can take an existing phrase or idiom that people are sick to death of, and contort it into something unique and hilarious. Here are a few methods to get you started:

  • Extend a phrase by adding on to the beginning of it.
    • My prosthetic limbs were incredibly expensive – they cost me an arm and a leg.
  • Extend a phrase by adding on to the end of it.
    • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Tomatoes and tomahtoes, however – completely different.
  • Change a word – or several words – of the cliche to reinterpret its meaning.
    • If you want nothing done well, do it yourself.
  • Combine two cliches to create an entirely new phrase.
    • Lightning doesn’t knock twice.
  • Rearrange the order of words of a cliche.
    • People who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw glasses.

Can you think of any other ways of reforming cliches? Add them to the comments section and I’ll maybe consider thinking about adding the best ones to this list and attribute them to you! (Maybe.)

Part of the process of updating predictable proverbs is having an understanding of the multiple meanings of a word, which is why I recommend keeping a thesaurus and/or dictionary handy.

It’s Your Turn to Reform Some Cliches

Now that you have the basics for rehabilitating stale phrases into something unexpected and unique, it’s time you try your hand at reforming cliches.

Take a crack at enhancing the cliches below:

  1. Barking up the wrong tree.
  2. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.
  3. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
  4. There’s no “I” in team.
  5. Fool me once, shame on you.
  6. Never bite the hand that feeds you.
  7. Actions speak louder than words.
  8. Every cloud has a silver lining.
  9. Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.
  10. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

When setting out to humorously embellish a stale saying, it’s important that you pick a phrase that many people are actually familiar with. If you’re just taking an inside joke and making it your own, chances are your audience won’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and will give you the cold shoulder. You know, the shoulder that has a chip on it?

Why Updating Cliches Works

Similar to my previous blog post on the Comic Triple, the secret to making this technique work is sending your audience down a certain train of thought, and then derailing them at the last second. Revised cliches can provoke laughter regardless of where the actual cliche is placed, whether your alteration is at the beginning of a joke, the end, or somewhere in the middle – if done correctly, that is..

Anyway, until the next blog post, try not to miss me too much. You know what they say, “absence makes the heart grow…something or other…”

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Commenting so I get notified of all your new posts. Awesome stuff!

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Scout! If we ever get hitched, I’ll take your last name!

Leave a Reply