I’m going to get angry comments on this one… I am bowing out of Pumpkin Spice Season. I know — it’s the new American September holiday. See that leaf tinged with orange? Pumpkin spice. Foggy morning? Pumpkin spice. Is it cool enough for a sweater? Pumpkin spice. Friends, if flavors can become cliches, pumpkin spice is at the top of the list.
Maybe it’s because neither pumpkin nor spice is anything new. But together? Holy marketing extravaganza! I’ll spare you the list of weird pumpkin-spiced products that are currently available. The most popular pumpkin spice product, and likely the originator of the trend, is the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. Until two years ago, it contained no pumpkin. That’s right, pumpkin spice revelers. Most of the time, pumpkin spice contains no actual pumpkin. An entire society has been re-sold on…apple pie spice. (I actually got into a very polite disagreement with a lady in the grocery store who was looking for pumpkin pie spice. I swear apple pie spice is nearly the same thing! Put a little ginger and clove in there and it is the same!)
This is all mock outrage, by the way.
However, in the same way we’ve been inundated with pumpkin spice everything, cliches can overtake our language and other communications, including our writing. Whether it’s a business email, a text, an article, or a fiction project, cliches can steal the power of your words and leave them feeling…well, in need of a little spice.
In fact, a disconcerting number of cliches creep into this blog! Like finding a spider in the kitchen, I have to be forgiving but firm. Yes, I understand how you got in. No, you can’t stay. Carry out those pesky cliches and get back to the heart of the matter (<—a cliche!).
To spot cliches and uproot them, read over your text with a keen eye. Ask yourself what feeling you’re trying to evoke. Or, on the flip side (<—another one!), think about the idea you want to communicate. Is there a fresher way to state your main thought? Can you reword the idea so that it makes a clear, solid connection with your reader?
Nothing New Under the Sun
Context matters. Don’t be so obsessed with a cliche-free piece that you lose the flow and pacing of your writing. Even professional emails should have a natural rhythm and be easy to read. You decide. If it’s between unique language and the clarity of a cliche, there are times when a common, though over-used, phrase will be the way to go.
Choose your battles, too. For example, I have banned the phrase, “I know, right?”, in my classes. It makes my skin crawl (<—not literally, so this is a cliche! See?). Why? Let’s focus on “I know, right?”, shall we? What. Does. It. Mean. I’m not kidding. Does anyone know? The words, “I know” seem to indicate certainty; the, “right?”, usually added in up-talk, lends uncertainty. Does the speaker know, or not? Maybe? My students and I are still in the process of finding a suitable substitute. Some candidates are: “Typical!”, “No surprises!”, and “I acknowledge and agree!” So far, not as contagious as, “I know, right?”
Another one is, “To be honest…” I ask the students if they are usually dishonest, and whether that’s why they’re warning me now. They roll their eyes. I’m such a fuddy-duddy 🙂 But it’s all to create a pause — to think about words and their effect.
Just like there’s a lot to love about September besides pumpkin spice, look for the fresh, unexpected details to include in your writing. Your readers, coworkers, and friends will be captivated.
What phrase do you think is over-used? How do you protect yourself from contagious catch-phrases?
Haven’t found your tribe yet?