I still think of my high school English teachers as tired warriors in a post-apocalyptic fable where the day starts with the lonely and gallant hero/heroine checking who still lives. I would wonder why they didn't just give up (too young to understand the interplay of tenure, mortgage, grocery bills) and go live on a beach somewhere. In fact one teacher wrote a well-organized, understandable grammar text and did just that.
Anyway, when I read that laughter keeps frail elderly people sharper and healthier than their depressed contemporaries, I knew, just knew, that I had discovered what kept the English teachers above room temperature and vertical in front of a chalkboard. Not the desire to mold young minds, not a yearning to inspire the next Sylvia Plath or Carl Sandburg, not love of the First Amendment: far from it! They taught to laugh.
A real-life contest was to write a three-page something without using a single cliché or hackneyed expression. The winner was to be excused from the next written English assignment. This was held once and not repeated. The winner was not announced. It was said that the results were so depressing that the teacher who sponsored it spent most of the summer in hospital. He certainly was paler in September than he'd been in June.
Some of the things I learned from the tortured souls of the English Department:
Hackneyed expressions are expressions that may have once been original and may indeed still be true, but have long since become stale or ineffective because of overuse or excessive repetition. Examples: we're obsessed; we're addicted; effortless.... Clichés are slightly dressier hackneyed expressions that were once original, and now just sound like someone isn't trying. Sometimes using a cliché in a new context, generally ironically, brightens it up for a bit. Don't count on it. (Note ironic use of hackneyed expressions in this paragraph.)
An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not readily predictable from the usual rules of a language or from the usual meanings of the mere words of the expression. Idioms are short-cuts in social and professional situations, and as such serve a useful purpose. If you clear your throat and apologize for the presence of a frog in it (or, if you're in France, a cat), you'll receive sympathetic smiles at worst. If you clear your throat and apologize for the presence of phlegm and mucus and other manifestations of post-nasal drip, people will back away from you. If you sit down at a lunch counter and order a "BLT down," you'll get a very nice light sandwich. If you launch into a description of how the bacon should be cooked, the tomato sliced, the bread toasted, you'll get peculiar stares. Oh, and if you want a large cup of warm, weak milky coffee at a café in France, don't faff around about "latte." Order "un grand crème."
Hackneyed expression contests, in fact bad writing contests of all kinds, abound. Here's a link to one of my favorites: sadder but wiser . Check out the reader submissions.
The legal profession (sometimes known as the world's second oldest profession) abounds in tired usages. This is because almost every expression has a technical (legal) meaning, and if the writer varies from the judicially defined or professionally accepted, there will be consequences to the client or - horror! - to the writer. One such expression has to do with not knowing what goes on while a jury deliberates. See above: may still be true.
Update: I managed to turn off the television without making any changes to the previous paragraph other than a font change.