It’s a good idea to avoid clichés in your writing. They are stale words and phrases that add nothing to your message except, perhaps, a “ho hum” from your readers.
You might be interested to know that many of today’s clichés were coined originally by Shakespeare in his plays. They were fresh at the time and seemed so apt that they became commonplace; over the centuries they evolved into the rank of clichés. Many more than these can be found in his writing, but here are a few to think about:
Lay it on with a trowel—As You Like It
Lie low—Much Ado About Nothing (“Nothing” in Shakespeare’s time also meant “noting,” or eavesdropping, a common theme in this play.)
Like the Dickens—The Merry Wives of Windsor This usage has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, who lived long after Shakespeare. “Dickens” is a synonym for the devil.
Makes your hair stand on end—Hamlet
Milk of human kindness—Macbeth
Much ado about nothing—Much Ado About Nothing, obviously
Mum’s the word—Henry VI, pt. 2
Night owl—Richard II and Twelfth Night
Neither a borrower nor a lender be—Hamlet
Off with his head—Henry VI, pt. 3
Rhyme nor reason—Comedy of Errors
Set one’s teeth on edge—Henry IV, pt. 1
Short shrift—Richard III
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark—Hamlet
Star-crossed lovers—Romeo and Juliet
Bowels of the earth—Henry IV, pt. 1
Devil incarnate—Henry V and Titus Andronicus (the latter being the bloodiest play you will ever read: the queen’s sons are served to her in a pie. Yum!)
Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—Hamlet
There’s method in my madness—Hamlet
The short and long of it—The Merry Wives of Windsor Notice that over the years we have switched the two nouns.
To be or not to be: that is the question—Hamlet
To sleep, perchance to dream—Hamlet
Too much of a good thing—As You Like It
Truth will out—The Merchant of Venice
Vanish into thin air—Othello, The Tempest
Band of brothers—Henry V
Wear your heart on your sleeve—Othello
What a piece of work is man—Hamlet When Shakespeare wrote this, he meant that humans were incomparable, the highest form of creature on earth. Today, when we call someone a “piece of work” we mean the opposite of what Shakespeare stated, a person who is at best incompetent and at worst malevolent.
What are today’s takeaways? Two things:
1. Read Shakespeare or see one of his plays. No one did it better.
2. Avoid clichés like the plague.