Word Salad – March 2023

It’s Hard to Top a Good Cliché

“Let’s have some new clichés.”
—movie mogul (and humorist) Samuel Goldwyn

“One of the ironies of language is that striking figures of speech and vivid comparisons soon become clichés precisely because they initially express an idea so well,” says linguist Richard Lederer. Is there any doubt a person was sweating profusely when you’re told he was sweating like a pig? (BTW, pigs don’t have sweat glands, so it’s anyone’s guess how this cliché became a cliché in the first place. Nor do fish drink very much, though we know exactly what is meant when we’re told someone drinks like a fish.)

Clichés serve us quite nicely when we speak, but they are a death knell for good writing. After all, creative writing is supposed to be just that, creative. If we constantly use clichés—other people’s phrases—to describe scenes and characters, our writing is hardly innovative. While we understand clearly the gravity of someone’s remarks when they are preceded or followed by the cliché, “I’m serious as a heart attack,” a writing coach or editor would insist that a more original description be supplied.

It is easy to think that the ubiquitous conversational like originated with the Valley Girls of the 1980s—you know, as in “he’s, like, the cutest guy ever, like, for reals”—but think again. Clichés by definition have stood the test of time and while there are exceptions, such as “he was all bent out of shape,” more often than not clichés are similes, meaning they compare one thing to another, linking the two with like or as.

Because today we’re not aiming for a Pulitzer, and no editor is looking over our shoulder, we are free to cliché away. So let’s delve into the world of these oft-repeated phrases and have a little fun. From the list below of 14 beginning phrases, I’m guessing you can fill in the animal endings as automatically and as quickly as you say your name.

1. bleeding like8. memory like
2. breed like9. rolls off him like
3. clever like10. runs around like
4. dropping like11. runs like
5. eats like12. soars like
6. fighting like (hint: two animals)13. watch like
7. He looks awful; he looks like14. works like


1. a stuck pig 2. rabbits 3. a fox 4. flies 5. a bird/horse/pig 6. cats and dogs 7. something the cat dragged in 8. an elephant’s 9. water off a duck’s back 10. a chicken with its head cut off 11. a deer 12. an eagle 13. a hawk 14. a dog

Next, look at the following list and see how many phrases you can complete. (Some have more than one commonly used option.)

1. avoid it like the21. a mind like
2. blew up like22. The news spread like
3. came on like23. runs like
4. cried like24. sank like
5. dropped it like25. selling like
6. finding the lost earring is like26. shaking like
7. fix it like27. She looks great; she looks like
8. Getting an answer out of him is like28. He looks awful; he looks like
9. grew like29. slept like
10. I need it like30. smokes like
11. hit him like31. spends money like
12. howl like32. sticks out like
13. keeps turning up like33. stole away like
14. I know this place like34. swears like
15. lie like35. They passed like
16. lit up like36. They’re so alike they’re like
17. live like37. took it like
18. make out like38. wails like
19. melts like39. went off like
20. a memory like40. went on and on like


1. the plague 2. a balloon 3. gangbusters 4. a baby 5. a hot potato  6. looking for a needle in a haystack 7. new 8. pulling teeth 9. a weed 10. a hole in the head 11. a ton of bricks 12. a banshee 13. a bad penny 14. the back of my hand 15. a rug 16. a Christmas tree 17. a king 18. a bandit 19. butter in my mouth 20. a sieve/an elephant’s 21. a steel trap 22. wildfire 23. the wind 24. a stone 25. hotcakes 26. a leaf 27. a million bucks 28. death warmed over 29. a baby/a log/a top 30. a chimney 31. water/it’s going out of style 32. a sore thumb 33. a thief in the night 34. a sailor 35. ships in the night 36. two peas in a pod 37. a man 38. a banshee 39. clockwork 40. a broken record

(Lists reprinted with permission.)

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Sally Asante
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