Data Tells Us: Film Scripts Love A Good Cliché
Moviegoers love a nice cliché. At least, if ticket sales for superhero comic films are any indication.
See what I did there? I just used one myself. (Actually, two.)
As a writer, I’m obligated to turn my nose up (three!) at clichés, wherever I see them. But my snobbery is hypocritical: I critique the unoriginality of my writer friends, yet I type clichés by the dozen. I roll my eyes whenever an actor says, “No! I’m coming with you!” yet wait on the edge of my seat during every Die Hard film until Bruce Willy finally says, “Yippee ki-yay, motherf—” [insert explosion/gunshot/karate chop].
The word cliché originates with ancient typesetters working at French printing presses. It was onomatopoeia for the click-shh sound that the metal letters made when set in the press. To save time, typesetters would cast commonly used phrases as single pieces, so they wouldn’t have to set letters individually, and they called those phrases “clichés.” (The English word for this, by the way, was “stereotype.”)
In everyday speech, most of us (myself included) spit trite sentences til their meanings warp—and don’t even realize it. In fact, the modern definition of cliché is “an expression that has been overused to the extent that it loses its original meaning or novelty.” It can also refer to a predictable event, or, as they say in television, a trope.
Hollywood indeed seems to be today’s biggest patron of tired ideas and cheesy phrases. Screenwriters for film and television often use clichés to convey ideas quickly. But with multimillion-dollar budgets and pretty actors who need to implement said clichés vocally on camera for millions of people, trite is more forgivable than cheesy, and Hollywood seems addicted to queso. There’s a difference between repeating a common phrase like “Let’s get out of here!” for economy’s sake and making McConaughey say, “Look what the cat dragged in.” (Magic Mike, 2012. Yes, I saw it.)
Recently, after sitting through a particularly bad Ryan Reynolds movie, I did what any conflicted word snob who thinks charts about movies are more fun than actual movies would, and started mining movie script databases to see what our most common cinematic clichés happen to be.
According to subtitle database Subtitlr, here are the most frequently-occurring words in film, excluding pronouns, articles, and prepositions. Each of the below appears in over a dozen popular movies or television shows:
Those are just solo words, though, so I spent a few (too many) hours querying QuoDB, which searches hundreds of thousands of movie and television scripts beginning in the early 1900s. From it, I charted 75 of the most used non-everyday speech phrases in cinema, ranked by relative frequency:
(My criteria: Phrase must be more than two words—ellipses count as a word, as in “What the … ?”—and either be a metaphor or exclamation. Common statements that only the most extreme cliché snobs would hate on, like “Hello, again” or “Thanks a lot,” don’t count.)
Like I mentioned before, trite phrases are less obnoxious than cheesy, no-one-would-ever-really-say-this dialogue. So, I parsed out some particularly lame overused lines from this list for more analysis.
Google’s Ngram Viewer shows us how these clichés’ popularity has ebbed and flowed over the last 200 years in literature:
The most enduring phrase from this list, “Over my dead body,” has a mysterious etymology; I couldn’t find its origin anywhere before Yale Literary Magazine in 1808, though the phrase was apparently popular in that era. “Make my day” briefly overtook it in the ’80s after Clint Eastwood said it in the 1983 film Sudden Impact. My least favorite on this list, “Well, well, well,” had its heyday in the 1980s. “Dead as a doornail” spiked during World War II.
The first time someone said, “[something] is my middle name” in film was 1935, in The Hare and the Tortoise. The hare specifically said, “My middle name is Speed.” Since then, our protagonists have given themselves lots of new middle names:
- “Punctuality is my middle name.” A Woman Without Love (1952)
- “Trouble is my middle name.” Get Smart (series, 1966); also Frankie and Johnny (1966)
- “Danger is my middle name.” Batman (series, 1968)
- “Guts is my middle name.” M*A*S*H (series, 1972)
- “Discretion is my middle name.” Rumpole of the Bailey (series, 1979)
- “Fun is my middle name.” The King of Comedy (1982)
- “My middle name is Divorce.” Remington Steele (Series, 1983)
- “Catering is my middle name.” Doctor Detroit (1983)
- “Faithful is my middle name.” Krull (1983)
- “Fantasy is my middle name.” The A-Team (series, 1983)
- “Money’s my middle name, baby!” Breathless (1983)
- “Disgusting’s my middle name, honey.” Crimes of Passion (1984)
- “Surprise is my middle name.” Hardbodies (1984)
- “Nice is my middle name.” The Goonies (1985)
- “Gas Can is my middle name.” Hot Cars Nasty Women (1985)
(There are 355 others, so I’ll stop at “Gas Can.”)
Clichés were all at one point novel. They often became clichés precisely because they were good; they resonated, they were memorable, or they’re handy. “Go ahead, make my day!” was awesome when Eastwood first said it down the barrel of a .44.
Truthfully, when they’re self-aware, clichés can be useful writing tools. I’d dare say deliberate clichéing can become meme bordering art form—as is often the case with satire. As Hephzibah Anderson points out in Prospect Magazine, many clichés bring camaraderie between author and audience. And they often originate from great minds like Shakespeare or Dionysius. “Far from being vacuous, the most enduring clichés tether you to generations of human experience,” she writes.
But most of the time, they’re not great. George Orwell (a variation of whose surname has become a cliché itself!), on the other hand, commanded, “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.” Though it’s tough to avoid common phrases entirely, the “best” movies tend to follow Orwell’s advice. Fun fact: None of the last five films to win the Oscar for Best Picture used any of the lines from my “cheesy” list. Slumdog Millionaire, six years back, did use “Well, well, well” once, but otherwise the no-cliché streak holds for several more years.
Part of my process as a writer is going over my rough drafts to replace or delete the inevitable host of clichés (at least the egregious ones). But this time, I deliberately skipped that step. Thus, by my count, I used more than a dozen clichés in this article. I’m afraid that original metaphor, George, is easier said than done.Image by Warner Bros