When the Cows Come Home to Roost

Rita, my wife, manages cashiers at a mad-dog, inner-city supermarket where going bananas from loose cannons is the norm. “It’s like herding cats,” Rita says about her staff, although she knows every cloud has a silver lining, and Rita says, “I also fight an uphill battle with bat-crap crazy and cold-as-ice customers who drive me nuts.”

At the end of the other day, Rita came home and vented—as usual. I’m her sounding board, but I have selective hearing so often, with me, it’s beating a dead horse. Rita went on to tell me about this, that, and other things going on in her shift.

Then she asked, “Ever hear, ‘When the cows come home to roost’?”

I looked up, smiled, and replied, “No. But it’s a clever play on clichés. Where’d you hear that?”

“A regular customer and I got in a Covid conversation. He’s sick of the mask thing. The double vax and now the third. And Stop! Show me yuh papuhs, as if we’re in Nazi Germany. So am I. Then he says, ‘Well, at the end of the day, when the cows come home to roost, catching Covid boils down to this. You’ll live happily ever after or you’ll give up the ghost.’”


Rita’s regular customer got me thinking about clichés.

Growing up in small-town Manitoba, Canada, was cliché emersion. I could go on and on with local cliché examples like “Pissed as a nit, liquored as Larry the Lizard, and drunk as a skunk”. Life in the fast lane was, back then, alcohol-fueled.

How often do we say clichés in daily conversation? How often do we write them—subconsciously—into our WIP and fail to recognize these easy-as-pie, easy-peisie, sneaky snips of syntax? How often do we miss clichés only to catch a few in the nick of time before we hit the publish button that can bring the perfect storm—that can of worms—of bad, bad reviews?

I did a little Googling on clichés. The Wonderful World of Wiki had this to say:

A cliché is a French loanword expressing an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. In phraseology, the term has taken on a more technical meaning, referring to an expression imposed by conventionalized linguistic usage.

The term is often used in modern culture for an action or idea that is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. Typically pejorative, “clichés” may or may not be true. Some are stereotypes, but some are simply truisms and facts. Clichés often are employed for comedic effect, typically in fiction.

Most phrases now considered clichéd originally were regarded as striking but have lost their force through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

A cliché is often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience. Used sparingly, it may succeed, but the use of a cliché in writing, speech, or argument is generally considered a mark of inexperience or a lack of originality. 

When I think of clichés, I often grin at how badly sports stars cliché in their media interviews. Take the golfer, “Yeah, just gotta keep the head down, eyes off the leaderboard, stick to the process, and let the putts drop.” Or the hockey player, “We gotta bring our A-game, give it a hundred ten percent, keep the other team on the boards, and get pucks to the net.”

But what about us common-place writers? How regularly do clichés slip into our WIP and how hack-like does that make us sound? Writing gurus say using clichés shows a lack of original thought, makes us appear unimaginative, and unmask a lazy writer.

I did a little more Googling and found some defense for clichés. One article said it was okay to use clichés when you’re trying to sync with a readership and use familiar phrases like back in the day for Boomers and the struggle is real for Millennials.

The article also said clichés were great to simplify things like explaining beginner concepts. It dropped an example of writing a how-to guide for expectant mothers. In this case remember, you’re eating for two was okay.

And the piece I found suggested clichés were fine, if not expected for dialogue and characterization. A fiction writer might use clichés to show a character’s sophistication level or their sense of humor. I’m wondering how when the cows come home to roost fits in with sophistication and humor. (Rita said the guy seemed dead-serious about it.)

I think we’re all somewhat guilty of dropping clichés. I know I am. Thankfully I have Grammarly Premium that tracks and highlights common clichés. You know, stuff like:

“The wrong side of the bed.”
“Think outside the box.”

“What goes around comes around.”
“Dead as a doornail.”
“Plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Ignorance is bliss.”
“Like a kid in a candy store.”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Take the tiger by the tail.”
“Every rose has its thorn.”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
“If only walls could talk.”
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“The pot calling the kettle black.”
“The grass is always greener on the other side.”

My cliché article gave a bit of helpful advice on avoiding clichés:

  1. Think about the meaning of the cliché. Use a dictionary to identify synonyms that could replace the word or phrase that is cliché.
  2. Decide whether or not you need to include the cliché. Often, clichés are unnecessary placeholders in writing and can be deleted.
  3. Rewrite the sentence with new words in place of the cliché. For example, if you’re describing a musical with the cliché “comes full circle,” the description could be changed to say that the musical “returned to the themes with which it started.”

My last Google cliché search rabbit-holed me into the mother-of-all cliché pieces. It’s a great site that I’ve never stumbled on before called Be A Better Writer which I’d certainly like to be. However, this article’s well was just a little too deep for me. It’s called 681Cliches to Avoid in Your Creative Writing.

How about you Kill Zoners? On a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being cliché free and 10 being cliché down & dirty), how guilty are you of letting clichés slip into your work? And is there a time when it’s okay to use clichés? Oh, and can you make up a better cliché phrase than when the cows come home to roost?


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner—pretty much Doctor Death for over thirty years. Now, Garry is a caped crime writer who fights villainous words rather than crafty crooks and deadly stiffs.

Check out books by Garry Rodgers on his website at DyingWords.net. You can also follow his bi-weekly blogs by hitching onto his mailing list and make sure you connect with him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1.

32 thoughts on “When the Cows Come Home to Roost

  1. Thanks for sharing, Garry. Your poor wife…my first real grownup job was as working as a cashier in a prototype supermarket that carried groceries as well as a wide arrangement of sporting goods, housewares, etc. It was more of a slaughterhouse than a zoo. This was before scanners, too. Everything had to be entered manually. It’s where I got a master’s degree in hating people.
    To answer your question…a 10, brother, a 10. I have to go through and it them (almost said “root ’em out, but that would be a cliche, too!).
    My favorite malapropistic cliche…my dear Italian grandfather, when disgusted with something, would say, “Bah! Humjunks!” I was laughing and crying as I typed that.

  2. Like any tool, if a cliché is used intentionally to create a certain effect in the reader, it’s fine. I don’t like them myself, but if I have a character who often uses clichés as a pattern of speaking, who am I to stop him?

    • Your right, Harvey. Cliches are storytelling tools and when they’re right for the character, then I guess they’re right for the story. Enjoy your day!

  3. Great post, Garry. Wonderful examples. And thanks for the links.

    I overuse clichés intentionally. My MC in my Mad River Magic series is a country boy who grew up steeped in clichés, and the POV is 1st and his. He speaks with clichés, and he thinks with clichés.

    My favorite clichés are the malapropisms, as Joe mentioned above. Norm Crosby was a master of that skill. My wife has a natural talent for those, constantly coming up with new ones. Occasionally, she’ll even mix three clichés. I wish I had started recording her creations years ago. When she comes up with a new one, I call her Norma.

    So, till the cows come home from the moon, stay warm and have a good day!

  4. Thanks for the laughs, Garry. Haven’t thought of Norm Crosby for years.

    I believe cliches in first drafts are fine b/c they’re shorthand for the thought you want to get across w/o stopping the writing flow. In subsequent drafts, they should generally be weeded out (oops, did a cliche just sneak in?).

    I agree with Harvey and Steve that if a character speaks/thinks in cliches, it’s okay…but only if it’s not so frequent that it irritates readers. Beta readers can help you judge that.

    In high school, there was a kid who must have been related to Norm Crosby. His most memorable saying: “by the hair of my teeth.”

    • ‘Mornin’ Debbie. I see cliches as part of the writing philosophy “Know the rules so when you break them, you do so intentionally… but be prepared to live with the consequences.” I used to work with a guy who regularly used the line, “I ain’t got a dawg in this fight.” He was from Alabama.

  5. In dialogue, I may slip in a cliche if it fits the character. Not every day cliches. They’re more like zingers but could be interpreted as cliches, I suppose. Example: “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.” — Frankie Campanelli 😉

    Like with most writing advice, if it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, lose it.

  6. “Like with most writing advice, if it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, lose it.” That’s probably the best writing advice out there, Sue. And I’m stealing “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

  7. Delightful, Garry! I love the post-game sports interviews. I’ve never figured out how those guys give more than 100 per cent.

    I avoid cliches like the plague. 🙂 But after reading this, I think it would be fun to have a character who speaks in mixed-up cliches. (Would Rita mind if I use “when the cows come home to roost” in a novel?)

    Thanks for a great start to the day.

  8. I’ve been so warned about cliches from the beginning that any time I’m about to type one, I stop and think of a million ways I can say it differently. Most times, I just end up using the phrase, because it’s the simplest way to say something.

  9. I’ll sometimes have a character use a cliche in dialogue, in two ways: either mangle it (“A link is only as strong as its weakest chain”) or spruce it up on purpose (Harlan Ellison had a character say, “She looks like a million bucks tax free.”)

    But at the end of the day, it’s as plain as the nose on your face: a cliche is barking up the wrong tree and can leave you between a rock and a hard place.

  10. Good morning, Garry! Very fun post. I feel for your wife, having to herd cats all day. Busy public libraries are more like retail than people realize, but still aren’t retail. Retail is more hectic, with even more cat herding than I did in library-land–I’d often be herding two or three at once, sometimes four, but never five, unless there was a elementary school visit 🙂

    I try to avoid cliches, but did commit a few in the first couple of my Empowered novels. The one example I heard about in a review was when a character commented sarcastically that “denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.” Yeah, I know.

    Love the linked resource! Keeping on having fine days!

  11. Great post, Garry. I bookmarked the link to the “681…” for middle-of-the-night reading.

    I don’t think I’ve used a lot of cliches in my MSs. My editor is eagle-eyed that way.

    But this post made me remember a cliche my Mom used to repeat ad nauseum when I was a growing tadpole. *Cue the eye roll*

    It’s a mighty long worm that doesn’t turn. When I was young, I often didn’t know what it meant when she’d drag it into conversation. Now I do.

    And what I wouldn’t give to hear her say it again. 🙁

    • Thanks, Deb. Glad I’m able to interrupt someone’s sleep with trivia like this 🙂 Yes, it sure would be nice to hear those spoken words once more.

  12. As the high school student said — “What so great about Shakespeare. His plays are filled with cliches.”
    My characters use them as needed. I try not to.

  13. “Cliché” can also be used in the sense of an overused trope or situation in film or literature. The beauty of these clichés is that they can be used to pull the rug out from under the viewer/reader when the scene goes an unexpected direction. But a “trope” is a much broader thing than a cliché. If you have some time, you might skim this site:


    These thoughts apply to novels, too.

  14. Love the “When the cows come home to roost.” 🙂 My editor usually catches my cliches on the first go around, but I do like having a character who mangles them. Or mixes metaphors. The last one they “might” come by naturally.

    • I have to say I really don’t mind cliches, Patricia. Used right, they’re useful 🙂 And there’s nothing like a great metaphor. Or simile, for that matter.

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