Some context:

I wondered about the distinction between cliche and idiom as seen by EL&U.SE and posted a question on meta (https://english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7740/where-does-englishlanguage-se-draw-the-line-between-cliche-and-idiom?noredirect=1#comment31642_7740) seeking clarification on the matter.

My conclusion about the difference in general was that a cliche is an idiom that has to become so common as to have fallen out of favorable usage (and as such seems to be a matter of frequency rather than some defining characteristic.) A few other users responded indicating that seemed to be a reasonable way to describe the difference.

My question is why did a separate term (cliche) come into usage as a label to describe the subset of idioms that were overused and thus less favorable?

Note I'm not asking why cliche specifically, but why a term was coined at all.

  • Please include the information that led you to conclude that cliche has anything to do with idiom. In normal usage 'dry as a bone' is a cliche, but there is nothing idiomatic about it. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 23:30
  • @TimLymington I don't have an example readily at hand, but in general what lead me to look for a difference between them was seeing how people would often point out an answer to an idiom request on this site was a cliche rather than an idiom instead. Not really knowing what made these two the same or different I went looking. I suppose my searching involved one in relation to the other specifically so it probably biased the set of responses I saw. I admit that was a mistake on my part.
    – Tuffwer
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 23:46

2 Answers 2


A note before answering the question: the set of cliches is not, in fact, a subset of idiom: you can have cliches that are not idioms (at least, in common usage; I do believe there is a meaning of cliché in the field of Linguistics that may in fact describe solely a subset of idioms); things such as stereotypes can be classified as clichéd (for example, villains in movies having monologues that provide the character time to escape).

Now that that's out of the way, however: Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation on the background of the word at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clich%C3%A9#Origin.

As to why it came into common use the way it did: whenever an idea comes up often enough in conversation, people will try to attach a word for it. For example, the use of images with text overlaid on them gained the word "image macro" (or meme, but image macros online tend to actually be a subset of memes).


A qualifier typically associated with the term "cliche" is "overused". A cliche has negative connotations suggesting something said without giving the subject sufficient thought, probably because it's a statement of conventional wisdom rather than a personally held belief.

An idiom is just a commonly used term, without any suggestion of qualitative value.

  • Idiom, as commonly used, has two different meanings. One is simply a commonly used and familiar term or phrase, but another is a term or phrase which has acquired a meaning different from the literal meaning of the words. A cliche is, from one point of view, an idiom of this second variety which has gone beyond having a "different" meaning to the point of having little meaning at all.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 0:34

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