Follow your heart.
Money can’t buy happiness.
Live each moment as if it is your last.
Good things come to those who wait.
When life gives you lemon, make lemonade.
What do those phrases have in common?
Yes, they have the impression of being captivating and powerful. No, no one takes them seriously anymore.
To be fair, those expressions initially sound clever and inspirational. They describe the situation well. They are catchy. They are convenient to use, like instant noodles and microwavable meals. The problem is they get old quickly. Typically, people rely on these remarks because people either are lazy or lack imagination. They are unable to come up with anything fresh or original.
So at best, some people are dearly inspired by those expressions. These people find the need to share them, to repost them on Facebook. At worse, you see and hear them so frequently that you are sick of them. You cringe when your friend theatrically recites those remarks thinking she is restoring humanity’s passion, at the same time, wondering if everyone would realize how witty and ingenuous she is. Somewhere in the middle, those expressions were somewhat lovely and specific at first, but over time, they have become extremely poignant and generic. They got exploited to the point that they have lost their novelty, power and ingenuity.
So what do you call these remarks/sayings/expressions? Turns out that the English language has a handful of words to name them.
Cliché is a borrowed word from French, which refers to a sentence or phrase that has been so overused that it has become dull, boring, and unoriginal. Think about the expressions “curiosity kills the cat,” or “never say never,” or “fake it until you make it.” A movie’s plot can also be called a cliché if it is trite and predictable through overuse.
Cliché is the French word for a printing plate. Since letters in a printing plate are fixed with the same expressions printed again and again, cliché is now used metaphorically to describe something copied and repeated without variation; a stereotyped idea, formula, plot, etc.
Platitude is also a hackneyed saying that expresses a popular or common thought. You know it; everyone knows it. It is old and corny. The English language has plenty of theses recycled ordinary clichés, or platitudes. Phrases like “go with the flow,” “work smarter, not harder,” are so worn-out that they have lost their impact over time. Everyone is tired of listening to these lousy old remarks.
Platitude also originates from French, literally means flatness. If something is flat, it is dull, stale and unexciting. Similarly, a platitude is meaningless, conventional and prosaic.
A bromide is a common phrase or proverb that is so obvious and trivial, like “it is what it is,” “what goes around comes around.” Such vô thưởng vô phạt, non-specific, clichéd sayings are bromides. A bromide is not helpful even though it is meant to offer comfort. Despite their good intentions, bromides don’t do anything to alleviate the situation.
The word bromide comes from the chemical binary compound made of the element bromine (Br), and another element. Historically, bromide was used as a sedative to suppress people’s feelings; making them dull and dormant, just as figurative bromides are dull and tiring.
A banality is a timeworn cliché, platitude or bromide. Banalities are sayings that everyone uses. They are so familiar, so ubiquitous to the point that they no longer spark any interest.
“Banality is a symptom of non-communication. Men hide behind their clichés.” -Eugène Ionesco
Banality is also the noun form of banal. As a noun, it is the state of being banal or mundane, as in ‘the banality of everyday life.’
Deus ex machina
In a movie or a novel, when the plot develops to such a complex point that is unlikely to be resolved. Then at the climax, something ridiculous jumps out of nowhere and solves everything; that ridiculous thingy is a deus ex machina. That thingy could be a fairy, a god, a super hero, an alien, a hidden treasure under the toilet, a new discovered ability of the protagonist, a resurrection of the main hero, a heart attack of the villain, a potato, or an everything-was-a-dream type of plot. In general, deus ex machina is the intervention of any unexpected character/event/object that has not been introduced earlier but now its presence offers an unconvincing solution to an impossible situation.
Deus ex machina is Latin, literally means “god from a machine.” In ancient theaters, a machine was used to hang actors who played god; he came out of nowhere, descended to the stage and cleaned up the unsolvable mess. In modern entertainment, the term has evolved with a negative connotation, referring to a mediocre denouement in a poorly written script.