10 clichés to ditch this holiday season

Turkey and all the trimmings. Grinches and Scrooges. Should wordsmiths dump these tired phrases now—before we start writing seasonal copy?


Political communication is notorious for platitudes and hackneyed phrases, but the end of a bitter election cycle doesn’t mean a respite from the onslaught of clichés.

Brace yourselves, America, for the annual avalanche of verbal chestnuts as the holidays approach.

As they say, “‘Tis the…” (Wait. No. Sorry.)

Last month John E. McIntyre, an editor at The Baltimore Sun, penned his annual anti-cliché diatribe, hoping to set the wordsmiths of America on the right path before “Deck the Halls” and “We Need a Little Christmas” start ringing in the rafters of every shopping mall.

McIntyre’s yearly exercise in futility is doomed as surely as “the white stuff” (a phrase he proscribes) falls every December up north. That shouldn’t stop writers and editors, however, from resisting our own worst impulses.

“Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill,” McIntyre growls. “It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality comforts them.”

He adds that in journalism, “the resort to trite language appears to be understood as an honorable ritual rather than as a failure to recognize the hopelessly hackneyed. So, for you who have ears to hear, heed the Holiday Cautions. Chestnuts roasting by an open fire are fine, but they can be kept out of copy and headlines.”

The worst thing about lists like McIntyre’s is that I’ve been guilty of reaching for clichés myself.

What’s so bad about these locutions? Can’t they be served up like fruitcake as a once-a-year treat?

Not if you want to write well, says an article on the Ketchum blog. (It’s titled, “You’d Better Watch Out . . . for These Holiday Clichés.”) PR pros and business communicators haul out these familiar sugarplums without considering how stale they have become, Ketchum states.

“Clichés only work if they can be used with a fresh twist or in a sharp ironic tone,” the author states, “and by falling back on them we don’t stretch our writing muscles to try to find that perfect turn of phrase that could capture an audience’s attention.”

Before you blow it this year, here are a few clichés gathered from the web and from curmudgeonly editors at Ragan Communications:

1. Turkey and all the trimmings. “If you can’t define ‘trimmings’ without looking up the word, you shouldn’t be using it,” McIntyre grumbles.

2. Grinches and Scrooges. Rob Reinalda, executive editor at Ragan Communications, urges us to toss these out like old wrapping paper.

Not everyone, however, is onboard with a ban on Grinches and Scrooges. After reading a previous year’s list by McIntyre, Boston.com writer Jan Freeman valiantly argued, “I’d like to think these are still live allusions, not dead clichés.” Bah, humbug.

3. ‘Tis the season. Avoid in both copy and headlines. “You cannot make this fresh,” McIntyre says.

Yet the phrase is already popping up. In a particularly heinous offense this week, a Pennsylvania newspaper merged holiday clichés with a post-election story, “Election signs in rights-of-way? ‘Tis the season.”

Business writing is no better: “Tis the Season to be Marketing—Christmas Campaigns in a B2B world.” Another writer surveyed the cultural landscape last year and observed, “‘Tis the Season… When and How to Start Your Holiday PR Program.”

4. “New Year, new you.” My colleague Clare Lane, co-editor at PR Daily, is in no mood to read ruminations along these lines: “How you can make social media marketing a part of your new year’s resolution.”

Remarks Lane, “Blah blah blah.”

5. Making a list and checking it twice. No, you won’t liven up your batch of HR and recruiting resolutions by arranging it according to the tiresome list-making and double-checking formula. Doing so will only earn you a glower from Reinalda, who suggested banning this offense.

6. Naughty or nice. “Please, no,” Ketchum beseeches.

7. Christmas came early. Ketchum offers this observation: “Groan.”

8. It’s beginning to look a lot like… If this sounds like a creative way to start out your holiday press release, Google that phrase plus “PR newswire.” I got 2,900 hits the day I tried it. Or search the cliché alone. The result: 646,000 mentions.

You’ll learn that it’s beginning to look a lot like:

  • an E-Commerce Christmas
  • Whisky Season
  • frozen cocktails
  • the holidays at Cold Stone Creamery
  • A $91 Billion Online Holiday Selling Season
  • Etc.

9. Stocking stuffers pops up on several lists of holiday clichés. Where I grew up, we got walnuts and oranges in our Christmas stockings, along with maybe a cheap cap gun or a miniature pinball toy. But the phrase has been extended to the point of uselessness to cover any gift—even luxury products—that happens to be small.

Do you, after exceeding your budget on all the main presents, cram your family’s stockings full of $175 leopard-print passport holders, $50 Bambi mittens, $65 Star Wars Death Star blueprint cufflinks, or £110 ($137) oak-framed sunglasses? If so, lucky you—at least until the credit card bill arrives.

10. “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Admit it: Whenever you croon this dirge, you’re ready to tear your hair out by the sixth time you were required to bellow, “Five gold rings!”

Warns McIntyre, “Parodies of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ are, if possible, even more tedious than the original.”

Yet some of us keep trying, convinced that on the 434,000th time (per Google), we’ll turn this phrase into poetry. Consider this piece: “Celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, Ad-Agency Style.”

There are dissenters. Reinalda, revered at Ragan as our own Word Czar, admits to “ho-ho-hypocrisy about clichés,” having penned his own iteration, titled “The 12 days of editing” a couple of years ago.

Though we strive for originality, Boston.com’s Freeman suggests that we not overthink it all and, well, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“The reading public … isn’t forced to swallow every cliché on offer; the familiar phrases are just part of the seasonal scene, to be enjoyed or ignored according to taste,” Freeman writes. “Moderation is wise, of course, whether you’re dishing out clichés or eggnog.”

@ByWorking

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