I laughed. "A seven-legged spider?" I flailed my arms and legs to amuse her as I left.
On the way home, I thought about how funny it could be if a real comedian would do an imitation of a seven-legged spider. It would be much better than my vague suggestion, because the pro would work out how a spider missing a leg would compensate, making the bit real as well as funny. I wasn't sure how this imitation by a faceless comedian would look, but it would be so good that everyone would start doing it, bypassing the thought part.
And that's how clichés begin.
We usually don't realize how imitative and cliché-ridden our speech is. A crowded event is jam-packed and a madhouse. Rain comes down in buckets or as a wall of water. Slippery roads are a sheet of ice. We do self-deprecation by starting out, "Note to self...."
It's our verbal shorthand, and we all do it. We hardly appreciate that the worn phrases were once fresh and different. The first person who said "mad as a wet hen" drew a vivid picture. Now there are people who say it without ever having seen a real hen, let alone a wet one.
I'm guilty too, but I'm also sensitive to it because I'm writing, and the permanence of the written word draws more scrutiny. So when I describe an angry person, I have to think about the character or person and describe how that person is angry instead of relying on the hen.
Why bother? If I used the cliché, people would understand what I'm getting at. Since we all use clichés, why are writers always told to avoid them?
Well, let's go back to the seven-legged spider. I'm sure that no one just watching, not hearing, Lorraine and me would have understood why I started moving my arms and legs crazily. But because of the research and work behind it, the spider act of my fictive comedian would resonate even without a label. People know the real thing when they see it. They know the real thing when they read it.
And when they see the real thing, they will appreciate the pro who made it, and then they will imitate it.