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The Origins of 7 Literary Clichés

Michele Debczak
Scott O'Neill/iStock via Getty Images
Scott O'Neill/iStock via Getty Images / Scott O'Neill/iStock via Getty Images
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Worn-out phrases can make a reader roll their eyes, or worse—give up on a book altogether. Clichés are viewed as a sign of lazy writing, but they didn’t get to be that way overnight; many modern clichés read as fresh and evocative when they first appeared in print, and were memorable enough that people continue to copy them to this day (against their English teachers’ wishes). From Shakespeare to Dickens, here are the origins of seven common literary clichés.

1. Forever And a Day

This exaggerated way of saying “a really long time” would have been considered poetic in the 16th century. William Shakespeare popularized the saying in his play The Taming of the Shrew (probably written in the early 1590s and first printed in 1623).

Though Shakespeare is often credited with coining the phrase, he wasn't the first writer to use it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Thomas Paynell’s translation of Ulrich von Hutten’s De Morbo Gallico put the words in a much less romantic context. The treatise on the French disease, or syphilis, includes the sentence: "Let them bid farewell forever and a day to these, that go about to restore us from diseases with their disputations." And it’s very possible it’s a folk alteration of a much earlier phrase: Forever and aye (or ayusually rhymes with day) is attested as early as the 1400s, with the OED defining aye as “Ever, always, continually”—meaning forever and aye can be taken to mean “for all future as well as present time.”

Though he didn't invent it, Shakespeare did help make the saying a cliche; the phrase has been used so much that it now elicits groans instead of swoons. Even Shakespeare couldn’t resist reusing it: “Forever and a day” also appears in his comedy As You Like It, written around 1600.

2. Happily Ever After

This cliché ending line to countless fairytales originated with The Decameron, penned by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century. A translation of the work from the 1700s gave us the line, “so they lived very lovingly, and happily, ever after” in regard to marriage. In its earlier usage, the phrase wasn’t referring to the remainder of a couple’s time on Earth. “The ever after” used to mean heaven, and living “happily ever after” meant enjoying eternal bliss in the afterlife.

3. Little Did They Know

The cliché “little did they (or he, or she) know,” which still finds its way into suspenseful works of fiction today, can be found in works published in the 19th century, according to writer George Dobbs in a piece for The Airship, but was truly popularized by adventure-minded magazines in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Dobbs cites this line from a December 1931 issue of The Rotarian as an early example: “Little did he know that he was then on the verge of discovering a hidden treasure.” The phrase was effective enough to infect the minds of generations of suspense writers.

4. Add Insult to Injury

The concept of adding insult to injury is at the heart of the fable “The Bald Man and the Fly.” In this story—which is alternately credited to the Greek fabulist Aesop or the Roman fabulist Phaedrus, though Phaedrus likely invented the relevant phrasing [PDF]—a fly bites a man’s head. He tries swatting the insect away and ends up smacking himself in the process. The insect responds by saying, “You wanted to avenge the prick of a tiny little insect with death. What will you do to yourself, who have added insult to injury?” Today, the cliché is used in a less literal sense to describe any action that makes a bad situation worse.

5. It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford opens with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” Those seven words made up only part of his first sentence, which continued, “the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Regardless of what came after it, that initial phrase is what Bulwer-Lytton is best remembered for today: An infamous opener that has become shorthand for bad writing. No artist wants to be known for a cliché, but Bulwer-Lytton’s legacy as the writer of the worst sentence in English literature may be partially deserved. Though he popularized “It was a dark and stormy night,” the phrase had been appearing in print—with that exact wording—decades before Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel with it.

6. Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It

Charles Dickens is credited with coining and popularizing many words and idioms, including flummox, abuzz, odd-job, and—rather appropriately—Christmassy. The Dickensian cliché not to put too fine a point upon it can be traced to his mid-19th century novel Bleak House. His character Mr. Snagsby was fond of using this phrase meaning “speak plainly.”

7. Pot Calling the Kettle Black

The earliest recorded instance of this idiom appears in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The line reads: “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes.’” Readers at the time would have been familiar with this imagery. Their kitchenware was made from cast iron, which became stained with black soot over time. Even as cooking materials evolve, this metaphor for hypocrisy stuck around.

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