Remember the 1984 movie Repo Man? Remember plate of shrimp? The theory espoused in the movie is that if you think about a plate of shrimp, or anything else, suddenly you’ll see and hear about it everywhere.
Lately everyone around me seems to be talking about clichés and stereotypes. We use the two words very differently. A cliché is an overworked figure of speech (there’s one right there: figure of speech), an expression that has been used too much. The new normal has become a cliché, thanks, I suppose, to the short-lived TV series with that name.
A stereotype we reserve for big, bad things, like the absurd notion that all Muslims are terrorists. All of the –isms (sexism, racism, etc.) inevitably involve stereotypes, as we as humans attempt to deal with The Other in the laziest way possible.
But here’s the thing: stereotypes and clichés as the same thing. Both terms come to us from the world of printing, and refer to either a block of type that has been set up beforehand or to a relief printing plate that is used repeatedly. Cliché, not surprisingly, is French for stereotype. By setting up a cliché ahead of time, the printer can save valuable minutes when it’s time to assemble the pages of a newspaper, for instance.
The word cliché is onomatopoetic. To the French ear, it’s the sound made when a block strikes into molten metal.
In fact, stereotype is also from the French, and is about a century older as a term than cliché. In common usage, a stereotype in the conscious or unconscious expectations about The Other. (Prejudice is our emotional response to stereotype; discrimination is the action our prejudices cause us to commit.
The invention of stereotyping around 1750 revolutionized printing. When preparing a book for print, thousands of letters were used to prepare a single page. An entire book took millions of these little pieces. And woe to the printer who disassembled the printing plates for a book only to have it go into a second printing! All those bits had to be assembled again. Stereotyping was a means of reproducing a metal cast of entire pages that could be easily stored if that second edition became a reality.
My favorite college professor once said that he didn’t mind clichés in our writing: a cliché was a cliché because it was true, he maintained. At least it was true enough that some printer somewhere had set it in type ahead of time, waiting for the right moment to use it.
This professor would chafe at the thought that stereotypes, being the same as clichés, are true. Fortunately, etymology evolves, and today stereotypes are very different from clichés.