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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cliches 1


Look at the cartoons above. Can you guess the "real meaning" of the two expressions? Answers are in the "Notes" below.


What, exactly, is a cliché? It is a phrase that may once have been fresh and interesting, but has become stale from over use. We all use clichés from time to time; the problem is when our speech or writing becomes so loaded with them that we become boring.

For learners of English as a second language, there is an added problem: What sounds like a cliché to a native speaker may be brand new to someone just learning the language!

The only way to avoid this is to look up lists of clichés and learn to recognize them.

Here are five clichés which are similes (using like or as).

a. As busy as a bee: The bee is notoriously industrious, so this phrase was natural--a little too natural, since it has become overused.

b.As cool as a cucumber: In fact, this means "calm," not "the opposite of warm." Why? No one seems to know; but have you ever seen a cucumber get excited? Not me!

c. As dead as a doornail: A doornail is the large stud we see pounded into doors to hold them together. One suggestion is that it was pounded through and bent over for security, thus making it "dead"--unable to be reused.

d. As easy as pie: Pie isn't especially easy to make--but it's very easy to eat! That may be the origin of this cliché, similar in meaning to "a piece of cake."

e. As fit as a fiddle: We now use this to mean "in good health," but "fit" here originally meant "suitable." No one knows why we say this, other than the suggestion that it sounds good.

Let's see how these can be used. We should avoid using clichés if possible. But when we do use them, how do we use them correctly?

When you're working too hard, you'll usually use an ugly simile, like "I've been working like a dog," or some exaggeration such as "I'm working myself to death." But when you want to compliment someone in a bright and cheery way, you might say, "My, you're just as busy as a bee, aren't you?" Remember, this is a positive, upbeat idea.

The next cliché, too, is positive. "My boss never freaks out when bad things happen; he's as cool as a cucumber." We sometimes also talk about "grace under fire," and "making [something] look easy": "The boss really shows grace under fire; when he faces a crisis, he somehow manages to make his job look easy."

Ok, I admit, there's nothing positive about "as dead as a doornail." It can be used figuratively, though: "Sorry I didn't answer your call last night; I had already gone to bed, and I was as dead as a doornail." In this case, we can also say, "I was out like a light," or "I was long gone." As for other "as dead as" expressions, we also say "as dead as a dodo," the dodo being an extinct bird.

"How was the test?" "Oh, it was easy as pie." As I mentioned before, this is like saying "It was a piece of cake." Other common expressions are "It was a breeze" (a gentle wind) and "It was a walk in the park."

As I mentioned before, the word "fit" in "as fit as a fiddle" originally meant "suitable," but these days we use it to mean "healthy." We can also say "as healthy as a horse," "as strong as an ox," etc. These are heavily-used clichés, though, and are best avoided. How about, "I'm fit as an Olympic athlete"?


In the cartoons above, the two expressions are clichés. The "real meaning" of "tossing one's head in the air" is putting one's head back quickly. The "real meaning" of "sweeping past someone" is going past them quickly, and not paying attention to them, like when one is angry.


Look at each of the scenes below. What cliché above goes with each scene?

1. Your friend had to climb a mountain. When he returns, you ask him how it went.
2. Your uncle runs a small shop. You tell him you haven't heard from him lately, and he tells you why.
3. Your teacher went home to visit her grandfather for the holidays. You ask about his health.
4. Your neighbor's house caught fire, and he saved his wife, his son, his dog, and never looked upset. How would you describe him?
5. Your telephone's battery has no more power. Your friend wants to borrow it. What do you tell him?


1. Are there clichés in your language that have the same meaning?
2. Can you think of other English clichés that mean the same as the ones above?
3. Write some short scenes that end with the clichés above.


1. d "No problem! It was (as) easy as pie!"
2. a "Sorry, I've been (as) busy as a bee."
3. e "Thanks for asking! He's (as) fit as a fiddle."
4. b "It was amazing! He was (as) cool as a cucumber."
5. c "Sorry, it's (as) dead as a doornail."
(Note: As you can see, the first "as" can be left out in each answer. Also, I have added a few words to make it more interesting; you can, too!)

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."

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