The Rest is History (A Very Short Post)

My best ideas for writing come to me while I am walking, or out on a run, or cycling to work.

My best… and also my worst. Clichés swim around in my thoughts as I plod along.

Clichés: the death of history. ‘Turbulent periods’, ‘dramatic social change’, and ‘seeming paradoxes’ stalk my thoughts.

I scare myself by wondering: are clichés more like parasites or infectious diseases? Will they swim around my brain until I die, or can I inoculate myself against the flood of paraphrases for ‘all is not what it seems’?

What is cliché to one historian may seem inoffensive to another. On the other hand, the clichés I worry most about aren’t the real clangers, ‘the rest is history’ or ‘an apple a day’. A quick online search reveals lists of ‘clichés’ that look more like lists of proverbial speech to the folklorist in me. Just because phrases are well worn doesn’t have to make them clichéd, does it? For me, the problem is not ‘clouds with silver linings’ and other folksy phrases, which might clang in undergraduate essays, but might nonetheless work in academic writing, when used carefully. No, the true problem phrases are specific to the type of writing: combinations of words that have become too frequent among historians (or in my own writing as a subset), phrases that tell my reader nothing new about the subject I’m discussing.

And I was surprised to find relatively few resources specifically for historians interested in purging their prose of platitudes. So this is me asking you: what phrases do you think sound most clichéd in history writing today?

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3 thoughts on “The Rest is History (A Very Short Post)

  1. I’m not sure these count as cliches, but I always find myself having to resist calling things ‘interesting’, ‘fascinating’, ‘illuminating’, ‘important’, etc. After all, if something is interesting, you shouldn’t have to tell the reader that.

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  2. Other suggestions from Twitter include ‘complex’, ‘key’, and ‘not only, but also’.

    I’m thinking of writing a follow up: to be honest I expected more cliches, especially around simplified critical theory (hegemony?).

    One last thought. A word I HATE to see historians use in a very loose way is ‘myth’. A myth is a sacred narrative often relating to origins, not just something that is untrue. I share similar concerns with other folklorists about loose uses of ‘legend’ and ‘folklore’ but ‘myth’ is the one I see historians using with depressing regularity.

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