Welcome, word nerds! I have a quick one for you today that follows on from last week’s post on the word stereotype.
As a brief recap for those who missed last week’s post (and are too lazy to click on the link 😉 ), we learned last week that stereotype was originally a printing term. Back in the days when movable type was used to create a form (a completed page ready for printing), printers began to use stereotypes as a way of making printing more efficient. Rather than using the form for printing, they created an impression of the form in papier-mâché, which was then used as a matrix to cast a solid metal relief of the page—the stereotype. The stereotype was then used for printing, freeing up the movable type to be used to create more forms. As technology developed, these stereotypes were able to be cast in a curved shape to fit the rolls of the mechanised printing presses.
That’s stereotype, in a nutshell. So, now for cliché.
I’m pretty sure we all know the definition of cliché, but for the sake of thoroughness, here’s the definition according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
It’s very similar in definition to the word stereotype, so it will probably not surprise you to learn that cliché was originally the French equivalent. It comes from the French verb clicher which means “to click” and is actually an example of onomatopoeia, because it imitates the sound of striking metal to make the stereotypes. But it does beg one question: If both cliché and stereotype refer to the same thing, how did they come to have slightly different applications in English?
Well, I can’t say I have a definitive answer, because I only found this mentioned once in all of the different places I searched (and that one time doesn’t list its sources), but according to Mentalfloss, the French didn’t just create stereotypes for full pages of printing; they also created stereotypes, or clichés, of commonly used phrases.
Ah-ha! you say. And well you might. It sounds like a good explanation, doesn’t it? Is it truth or simply a logical assumption? I can’t honestly say. But it certainly gives a very concrete illustration of our more abstract use of the word today.
Oh, and sorry for the misleading introduction. If ever I use the word quick in relation to something I’m writing, take it with a grain of salt. 😉