Printers needed ‘clichés’ to ease their workloads

The word "cliché" gets its origins from the cheap, repetitive processes of producing books brought about by the printing press.


“She’s got a heart of gold.” “He’s like a kid in a candy store.” These are clichés, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a trite phrase or expression” or “a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation.” Writing last week about snowclones, which take clichés and make them fun again, I found myself wondering two things: Where does cliché come from, and what’s the proper way to deal with that accent mark?

The accent aigu (“acute accent”) on the “e” indicates that cliché comes originally from French. Given that the word has been “naturalized” in English since at least 1817, though, it can also be spelled cliche. Robert Hartwell Fiske, author of the Dictionary of Unendurable English and a stickler of the highest order, explains that “it is preferable with the accent” but won’t cause confusion without it, unlike a word such as exposé, which needs the mark to distinguish it from expose. Cliché is a noun and its adjective form has traditionally been clichéd, though today cliché itself is often used as an adjective too. So it is not incorrect to say things like “That poster of Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ on your dorm wall is cliché.”

Etymologically, it’s one of a surprising number of words that English acquired from printers’ jargon.  

Johannes Gutenberg brought movable type to the Western world around 1450. People had previously copied books by hand, or, occasionally, used wooden blocks to print them. A separate block had to be carved for each page, however, and being soft, they wore out quickly. Gutenberg cast individual letters in metal, and developed a system of “formes” that could hold the letters in lines. When one page was done, the printer could rearrange the letters and print something else, making books quicker and cheaper to produce, and more legible. 

By the late 18th century, printers had noticed that some words and phrases came up frequently. They also realized they were having to reprint some popular books. For these, they made the equivalent of the old woodblocks, cast out of metal, so the pages didn’t have to be reset every time. To 18th-century French printers this casting process apparently made a noise that sounded like “clicher,” and so they called the plates thus produced clichés. Given that their purpose was to make large numbers of identical copies easily and cheaply, it is not surprising that by 1881, cliché had migrated into English as a way to refer to words and phrases that had become trite through overuse, and by 1895 was being applied to unoriginal or predictable people and things. 

These plates had another name in English, too. They were stereotypes, which we’ll get to next week.     

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