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Overuse, cliché, and the deadly “poignant”

April 2, 2008 | 11:25 am


Last week, the fine folks at Paper Cuts, the NY Times’ book blog, came up with the seven deadliest words of book reviewing: poignant, compelling, intriguing, eschew, craft, muse and lyrical.

While I’m sure that all of these appear far too often in book reviews, I’m not sure that makes them deathly clichés. Take “eschew” – not a bad word, just too sneezy for spoken conversation – it looks nice on the page, and is more, um, lyrical than “avoid.” Simply seeing “eschew” in a review would not make me toss it aside.

But then there’s “poignant.” Meaning emotional and affecting, to me, “poignant” is a flag raised only by those prone to cheap sentimentality. Any reviewer using “poignant” becomes, in my eyes, immediately suspect. Books (films, what have you) described as “poignant” are to be avoided. “Poignant,” in addition to being a descriptor of things I dislike, is an ugly word. Poignant. Blech.

Actually, these words seem more like pet peeves than those that have been overused to the point of cliché. If you want to know, in a quantified way, what words are being used to the point of cliché by major newspapers (including this one), there’s the new website Kill the Cliché.

Using some clever algorithm, Kill the Cliché tracks what words appear the most in a few choice mainstream media sources. At this point it mostly focuses on single words -- so "insurgent" and "allegedly" are big. I'd love to see phrases -- I don't know, "alleged insurgent" seems like more fun.

And book reviews don't get their own treatment, although I hope that someday Kill the Cliche will have a section dedicated to book reviews, so we can quantify just how many "poignants" and "eschews" mar the lyricism (whoops) of book reviewing.

Carolyn Kellogg