People pray at a vigil, after a mass shooting that killed 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2017.
Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images
By Katy Steinmetz
November 9, 2017
IDEAS
Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

After the horrific shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, a rhetorical tennis match ensued. Some politicians offered up their “thoughts and prayers,” as many have following other mass shootings. Others responded by criticizing “thoughts and prayers” as a pathetic substitute for taking concrete action. On Wednesday night’s episode of Full Frontal, Samantha Bee even organized a gospel choir to parody the phrase. Those critics, often liberals, were then taken to task for their unholy dismissal of “thoughts and prayers,” which in turn led to criticisms that those criticisms were just a deflection guarding another deflection.

The hubbub surrounding these three words goes deep, centering on gun control and religion, two of American society’s most divisive issues. But the back-and-forth is also about language and the sometimes complicated reactions that we have when people use cliches, especially in sensitive situations.

“Cliches have a role as both the comfort food and the junk food of language,” says Orin Hargraves, author of It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches. “It’s the comfort food aspect that comes into play when there is tragedy.”

Yet, eat too much of either, and you might feel sick.

The word itself comes from printing: In the 1800s, a cliché was a name for a block (also known as stereotype, which is no coincidence) that could produce copy after copy of text. Before the end of that century, the word had shifted to the way we use it now, as a generally negative term for an expression that has become trite from overuse, a sure way to get docked a few points on your English exam.

As Hargraves outlines in his book, it’s not easy to say what qualifies as a cliche. There’s no universal voting among English speakers on which expressions have officially become unoriginal. And even if people could agree on that, they’d still disagree on when it was appropriate to use them. A cliche certainly doesn’t feel overused when someone is hearing it for the first time, marveling at the pithiness of “throwing caution to the wind” or the poetry of “hell or high water.” And even after hearing them the thousandth time, they can seem like the best, most economical option for expressing a common idea. “The original, first usage is usually quite appropriate, original and clever,” Hargraves says, “and this is the reason that it spawns imitation.”

Politicians (and journalists) have long turned to cliches because of the nature of their work. It’s grueling and repetitive, often requiring them to communicate a message to a whole districtful of people, if not an entire country. They generally want to do this in language that won’t be misconstrued, that doesn’t leave them vulnerable to attacks, that feels familiar. Cliches aren’t just overused because they’re clever; they are also safe. You can assume people will know what you mean when you use rhetoric that so many have used before you, even if it is stale as old toast.

And no one wants to send a mixed message or draw attention to their own unique musings on the ruins of time when people have lost their lives. Grief often presses us beyond the bounds of logic and even language itself, which is why many turn to expressions that simply convey the idea that no words will suffice when something terrible and terrifying happens. But using worn-out words when people are bereaved comes with risks too, and people have been sending “thoughts and prayers” for centuries.

Hargraves notes that Bill Clinton was particularly fond of using that phrase as part of the ritual in which a president expresses condolences (and he still is). The underlying sentiment is clearly a kind one, an expression of sadness and hope that a higher power will respond with something healing, and there is no counting how many times politicians, of all political stripes, have used it. “In times of tragedy, no one wants to say the wrong thing,” Hargraves says, “and so saying the thing that everyone else says, or has been known to say, seems like the right thing.”

That is, he notes, unless something else is required on that occasion, and for many “that’s clearly the problem here.”

He references the memes that have sprung up mocking the use of these words after deadly incidents, like an episode of the Netflix show BoJack Horseman and an online game in which players are sardonically invited to use “thoughts and prayers” to try and stop mass shootings. “Their point is that, given our epidemic,” Hargraves says, “‘thoughts and prayers’ do not avail at all.” Repeating the same language can even feed into the feeling that mass shootings are becoming normal and unworthy of deep, sustained attention, much less legislative action.

And, while many bereaved people will accept “thoughts and prayers” with fine feeling or little feeling at all — the way they might react to sympathy cards on which senders have written nothing personal except for their names — others may feel insulted. Offering someone a cliche when their insides feel like wet rags that are being twisted and torn can send the message that their grief wasn’t worth the trouble of original, specific thought. From a politician especially, it can seem like a superficial attempt to get credit for being sympathetic rather than an attempt to truly feel what the survivors might be feeling.

So where does that leave us? Should people send out “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of the next unthinkable, unspeakable happening? Of course, if they want to. It’s common for good reasons. But they should also be aware of the different ways that kind of language can cut, like a cliched double-edged sword.

In the meantime, critics of the phrase “thoughts and prayers” might acknowledge they too are falling into a pattern. At this point, the offering of “thoughts and prayers” is only slightly more rote than critics lashing out at politicians for reacting that way. The response “is now itself a cliche,” says Hargraves. “It is definitely an area where need original thinking.”

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