The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







An aphorism is a wise saying that bears repetition.

Some examples are:

  • Marry in haste: Repent at leisure.--Scots Proverb
  • Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. --Chinese Proverb, often misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Lost time is never found again. --Benjamin Franklin
  • People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

It can embody a bit of humor or be tied to some overworked statement, such as:

  • One man's meat is another man's poison.

Of course, the wisdom of an aphorism can always be brought into question, whereas the intention of wisdom is implied.


Aphorism and Literature

Aphoristic collections, sometimes known as wisdom literature , have a prominent place in the canons of several ancient societies: e.g. the Biblical Book of Proverbs, Islamic Hadith, or Hesiod's Works and Days. Aphoristic collections also make up an important part of the work of some modern authors, such as Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some writers such as Eric Hoffer employ a style of compressing ideas and thoughts into brief paragraphs, many one sentence long, and refer to these as aphorisms. See for selected examples.

Poetics of the Aphorism

Some sociolinguists consider the aphorism a compressed poetic genre in itself. Aphorisms typically make extensive use of such devices as alliteration ("penny wise, pound foolish"), anaphora ("a penny saved is a penny earned") and rhyme ("a stich in time saves nine").

Consider, for example, the aphorism "Children should be seen and not heard", which has persisted in common usage despite many compelling objections to its wisdom. Whatever the value of its message, the phrase is in fact a masterpiece of oral-poetic art.

"Children should be seen and not heard" contains emphatic repitition of the consonants n and d ("Children should be seen and not heard"). Metrically, it consists of four syllables without strong rhythmical marking ("Children should be") followed by a pronounced choriamb ("SEEN and not HEARD"). It is thus remarkably similar to octosyllabic verse-forms found in many ancient literatures, including Sappho's lyrics and the hymns of the Rig-Veda.

Aphorism and Society

In a number of cultures, such as Samuel Johnson's England and tribal societies throughout the world, the ability to spontaneously produce aphoristic sayings at exactly the right moment is a key determinant of social status.

Many societies have traditional sages or culture heroes to whom aphorisms are commonly attributed, such as the Seven Sages of Greece or King Solomon.

See also

Other Uses

Aphorisms is also the title of a work by Hippocrates which was well known during the mediaeval era.

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