Clichés of 1999 in Review


Chatterbox’s request that readers submit nominations for the First Annual Joseph Heller Memorial Cliché Contest   yielded a huge response. What explains Web readers’ great interest in clichés? Perhaps it’s a rebellion against the printing press, a technology whose usefulness is now being challenged by the Internet. Cliché, which (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is French for “to click,” refers to the “striking of melted lead in order to obtain a proof or cast.” That is, it describes a process of  printmaking in which a metal plate is cast from something else (a woodcut, a plaster mold) and then used to make copies. The English term for this process is stereotype, which has acquired a similar pejorative meaning. Of course, Web aficionados should take care not to be too scornful of the old-style printing press’s capacity to reproduce images ad absurdum, since the Web has vastly expanded it. Indeed, it’s quite possible that in the next century the terms “cliché” and “stereotype” will be supplanted by new terms derived from the Internet. We may find ourselves saying: “I’m sick to death of  html like ‘be there in a San Jose minute” or: “Androids resent being homepaged as unfeeling simply because they’re manufactured rather than born.” In the meantime, cliché-obsessed readers may wish to consult the many cliché-oriented sites available on the Web. These include the Cliché Finder; The Book of Clichés Cirque de ClichéSteve’s Clichés; Sports ClichésMovie ClichésDutch Clichés; and the Web page of David Cliché, an official of Canada’s Quebecois party.  

A Word About Method:

Although some readers submitted citations along with their entries, per Chatterbox’s request, most did not. Also, readers’ methods for counting citations varied greatly–some used Nexis, some used Dow Jones News Retrieval, some used Yahoo, and so on. In the end, Chatterbox took the advice of reader Josh Green, a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, which every summer calculates the year’s biggest political cliché by using the search engine for the Congressional Record. Chatterbox took the better entries from readers and plugged them into the Record’s search engine to see how often they were uttered in Congress between Jan. 1 and Dec. 27, 1999.

 And the Winner Is …

Inappropriate,” submitted by Thomas E. Ricks,* defense reporter for the Washington Post and author of Making the Corps. This term made more appearances in the Congressional Record (382) than any other word or phrase nominated (at least among the ones Chatterbox bothered to check). “Inappropriate” easily outstripped “evil,” a word that appeared in the Congressional Record a mere 250 times, though–William Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and other denouncers of moral relativism take note– it still lagged behind “wrong,” which appeared in excess of 999 times (the CR search engine doesn’t count beyond three digits).

What was inappropriate in 1999? The designation of several non-emergency categories of spending as emergency spending (according to a resolution submitted by Sens. Phil Gramm, Olympia Snowe, and Russell Feingold); proposed oil drilling along the California coast (according to Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham); Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky (according to a resolution submitted by several Democratic senators); lots of arts funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (according to Rep. Ron Packard); sex between children and adults (according to a House resolution endorsed by just about everybody that apparently came out of a broadcast by radio therapist Dr. Laura Schlessinger); and many, many other things.

It must be said, however, that the rate at which Congress is deeming things “inappropriate” is down slightly from the 1997-8 session, when during a two-year period the word “inappropriate” appeared in the CR 824 times. To hold steady, “inappropriate” would have had to appear 412 times.


At the end of the day” is a phrase that drove several Slate readers bonkers this year. Chatterbox had thought it old hat (it dates back at least to the Bush administration), but the phrase appeared 272 times in the CR database for 1999, ranking it second among all submissions. That’s an increase in its frequency of appearance over the previous congressional session, when the word was uttered only 401 times during a two-year period. At this rate, lawmakers will end up talking about the end of the day 544 times before the current session ends in Dec. 2000. Many thanks to readers Bill Moran, Darren Thorneycroft, and Nicholas Lemann* (author of The Big Test) for flagging this one.

Robust” came in third among words and phrases submitted (220 citations in the CR), and unlike the previous two, it seems to be a genuinely new cliché; at any rate, Chatterbox hadn’t previously been aware of its overuse.  Like “at the end of the day,” its use is on the upswing (one might even call it robust), with only 336 citations during the previous congressional session. According to John Burke, who submitted “robust,” it is

The most overused, overworked, hackneyed word in the cliche-ridden vocabulary of pols and their speechwriters, D.C. bureaucrats, think-tank thinkers, pundits and even lowly working reporters condemned to write about legislation and policy making. You know, everything has to be robust now: a robust foreign policy, a robust national defense, a robust air attack on Serbia, a robust police crackdown, a robust anti-drug policy, a robust investigation of abuses.  Most political activities are robust, too: a robust campaign, a robust fundraising program, a robust reponse to critics, a robust position on you-name-it.


Clichés to watch in 2000:

Many excellent nominations failed to garner as many CR citations as Chatterbox expected. These include: “wake-up call” (46); “above my pay grade” (41); “paralysis by analysis” (2); “new facts on the ground” (1); and “mano a mano” (1), which, as reader Jay Brida pointed out, is always misused (it’s Spanish not for “man to man,” but “hand to hand”). These are all comers, in Chatterbox’s view.

*Personal friend of Chatterbox