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What are the differences between trite, cliché, and passé? They seem to all have a similar denotation, but what are the subtleties of their connotations?

The only difference I really see is that cliché is an expression that has become trite or passé, whereas trite and passé can be related to anything, e.g. ideas, words, fashion, etc.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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4 Answers 4

Cliché is the most commonly used of these three words in American English. It's come to refer to a phrase or idea that has been encountered too often and is thus both unoriginal and unsatisfactory. A cliché-ridden speech will bore its listeners. A cliché ending to a story may disappoint an audience (though, if the genre is romantic comedy, it may well be exactly what the audience is looking for).

Of the other two words, trite is closest in meaning to cliché. It is generally used to refer to something that feels worn-out and dull, which accords with its root in the Latin verb meaning to rub/wear down.

The biggest difference I've observed between cliché and trite, aside from the fact that the latter is slightly less common, is that people periodically use trite as a synonym for boring or vapid, even if the subject hasn't specifically been encountered before. (This isn't correct, per se - something trite has, by definition, been encountered excessively - but it does occur.)

Additionally, things described as cliché are often intended to be sweet or sentimental and end up saccharine; things described as trite were more likely intended to be sincere and deep and end up sounding hollow.

Passé is rather different from these two words. A fair synonym is dated - something that was once fashionable (perhaps even quite recently), but no longer is. While phrases, images and ideas are often described as cliché or trite, the word passé is more often used to describe objects, fads or fashions. A story's ending would not be described as passé; heroin, on the other hand, might be.

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My answer:

For me, cliché is an extravagant expression that becomes burdensome and people stop listening to the speaker as s/he trundles through a speech or conversation.

The extravagant expression was catching and a good eye opener, but now concise economical use of language is desired (like an obvious fact that needs no introduction or flourish).

That is my impression the word cliché. I am not familiar with the usage of passé. The word trite, I find interesting in certain phrases.

The connotation of a word is not absolute, but relative to the context and the way the words form and are delivered in speech and writing.

Trite

The word
“Oh, you speak such trite” (it's connotation depends on the person receiving it) = [your speak is irrelevant]. To what is my speak irrelevant? Why is it irrelevant? Does it matter?

Why tell of one of their trite?
Is it trite to inform one of their trite speak?
“Not, if it gets you to change the subject or entertain me with things that interest.” [light connotation] What interests you what does not?


Of my answer:

The dictionary is based on culture and culture the experience of individuals; therefore personal impressions of the usage of words can be a good barometer test. I am one such barometer, a single point in a continuum.

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2  
Trite is an adjective. I believe you are thinking of tripe. –  TimLymington May 14 '11 at 10:24

Here are some example sentences from the Oxford English Corpus:

  • I have come to the conclusion that he is a tired cliché in search of a point.
  • Just my luck, I was being stalked by a tired cliché.
  • You have written a cliché, a worn-out metaphor.

As with all questions of connotation, one must go by the evidence, and one can only make an educated guess. I would say that cliché has a negative connotation and, in keeping with its definition, is something over-used and well-worn.

  • It seems almost trite to say it is a major disaster but it is difficult to find words to express the significance of this second attack.
  • Quibbling about definitions of freedom is a trite response to a serious issue.
  • This is more than the trite truism that there is a thin line between love and hate.

Trite definitely also has a negative connotation -- I think all these words do -- but it has an entirely different implication than cliché: something that is trite is something that is not deep or meaningful enough.

  • What you think is in style one season may be viewed as passé the next, especially by the hardcore fashionistas.
  • Most unpolished is the dialogue, which is often so clunky and forced that Rudnick smears the awkward moments with passé humor.
  • Out in the seats I imagine we're all feeling the same fear -- that our jobs are drying up, that they can be done for a fraction of our wages by someone more desperate somewhere else, that our hard-won skills are passé.

Passé is used to show that something has passed its use-by date, that it was once appropriate and worthwhile, but is no longer. Again, it has a negative connotation, but refers to something that was once in widespread use, but should not be used today because it has lost its effectiveness. This is different from a cliché in that a cliché is most often a phrase, whereas anything can be passé.

These are just my interpretations of a very small set of data. Feel free to make your own.

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I can give an insight as a French native speaker.

trite is not a French word an cannot really comment on its subtleties, but the roots of the words are the same than triviality.

Cliché comes from a photographic language. A cliché in French is simply a snapshot taken with your camera.

Passé is the name for the past. All things that has happened before belongs to the passé.

Te summarize, I'd make these distinctions:

  • trite ~ superficial
  • cliché ~ commonplace
  • passé ~ outdated
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1  
You do have a unique insight, but in my opinion the question was to English speakers: What do people mean when they use these words? –  J D OConal Sep 20 '10 at 23:28
1  
As a native English speaker, I second this answer. –  kitukwfyer Sep 20 '10 at 23:54
2  
FWIW, cliché doesn't come from "a snapshot taken with your camera", it comes from typography. "A cliché was a printing plate cast from movable type. This is also called a stereotype. When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly as a single slug of metal." That's from en.Wikipedia; fr.Wikipedia doesn't mention phrases, only images, but still not exactly "snapshots": cliché "est d'abord un bloc en relief obtenu par un procédé photomécanique pour imprimer en typographie une image quelconque, comme son synonyme stéréotype (« type en relief »)". –  RegDwigнt Sep 21 '10 at 11:10
    
can I also ask about: jejeune, vapid, insipid, banal, hackneyed? there seem to be tons of ways to say this kind of thing. –  Claudiu Nov 8 '10 at 14:56
    
@Claudiu: why not phrase this as a separate question? Its interesting enough. BTW, it's spelt jejune. –  TimLymington May 14 '11 at 10:23

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