It's concise, time-tested, and instantly familiar. What's not to love?
WHO WILL SAY a good word for the cliché? Its sins are so numerous. Exhausted tropes, numb descriptors, zombie proverbs, hackneyed sentiments, rhetorical rip-offs, metaphorical flat tires, ideas purged of thought and symbols drained of power - the cliché traffics in them all. A lie can be inventive; an insult can be novel. Even plagiarism implies a kind of larcenous good taste. But a cliché is intellectual disgrace. The word itself seems to shape the mouth into a Gallic sneer.
Writers of course have always been extra-spooked by cliché. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" No, I don't think I shall - because somebody else already did that. And in 2001 Martin Amis officially declared war against cliché with a book entitled, uh, "The War Against Cliché." "All writing," he proclaimed, pennants flying, "is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and of the heart." And indeed Amis in his dazzling career has routed cliché, scattered it, seen it off with a thousand boilingly brilliant and novel images.
But here's the thing: were any of them quite as good as "fit as a fiddle?" Time, to use a particularly sage cliché, will tell. If in 50 years an Amis-ism like "reduced to tears of barbaric nausea" is common currency, then he'll have made the grade. Durable, easily handled, yet retaining somehow the flavor of its coinage, the classic cliché has fought philology to a standstill: it sticks and it stays, and not by accident.
Let's consider the origin of the word. For 19th-century typesetters, a cliché was a piece of language encountered so often in the course of their work that it had earned its own printing plate - no need to reset the individual letters, just stamp that thing on the page and keep going. So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up. I imagine that a nice hardy cliché like "on its last legs" or "tempest in a teapot" does more or less the same thing inside our heads: one bash of the stamp, one neat little payload of meaning, and on we go. And speaking of tempests, how did we manage for so long without Sebastian Junger's "perfect storm," the epitome of a vigorous and helpful cliché? ("A perfect storm in a teapot," on the other hand, is not a cliché. Yet.)