An aphorism (AFF-or-iz-uhm) is a concise saying that presents a principle or observation as a universal truth. Aphorisms are often witty, and for centuries, they have appeared in philosophy, religion, politics, literature, and daily life because of their general truths and memorable nature.
The term aphorism is derived from the Greek aphorismos, meaning “definition.” Greek physician Hippocrates coined the word and wrote a book on medical aphorisms.
Examples of Aphorisms
Many aphorisms are recognizable, everyday phrases:
- “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”—Despite the opportunities given to someone, they can’t be forced to take advantage of them.
- “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”—It’s preferable to be confronted with an unpleasant but familiar person or situation than a completely new and unknown person or situation that may be worse.
- “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”—Don’t formulate a plan based on the assumption that critical aspects will happen.
- “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”—Taking precautions is preferable to fixing a crisis after the fact.
- “A penny saved is a penny earned”—This aphorism praises frugality, emphasizing the importance of careful spending.
Types of Aphorisms
Maxims are aphorisms that express a self-evident principle or rule of conduct. The saying “All good things come to those who wait,” which expresses the importance of patience, is a maxim. Many, but not all, aphorisms are maxims.
Truisms are aphorisms that are considered obvious or lacking in meaning. A common example is Chinese philosopher Laozi’s saying “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This expresses the importance of starting to work toward a goal; while inspirational, people may also consider the phrase to be fairly obvious.
Why Writers Use Aphorisms
Aphorisms allow writers to concisely convey a truth—either earnestly or in an ironic fashion—through humorous means. These statements are generally easy to remember and frequently applicable to a number of different situations, granting them universal appeal. As a result, when writing aphorisms, authors must be aware of how readers will take the statement to ensure the intended effect. Otherwise, it will not leave the impression authors desire.
Aphorisms vs. Other Literary Devices
Aphorisms, Colloquialisms, and Idioms
Colloquialisms are informal figures of speech and language originating from dialects or regional phrases. The phrase “bless your heart,” associated with the southern United States, is a colloquialism. Aphorisms and idioms both fall under the colloquialism umbrella since they are all rooted in local language and culture, but not all colloquialisms are either aphorisms or idioms.
Idioms differ from aphorisms in that, while the latter expresses general truths in unexpected ways, idioms do not necessarily focus on truths. Instead, this figure of speech uses nonliteral terms to convey an action or idea. “Beat around the bush” expresses that someone is not stating something outright, and it isn’t meant to invoke the image of someone beating a bush.
Aphorisms, Adages, and Proverbs
Adages and proverbs are like aphorisms with small but significant differences.
Adages tend to come from general culture and restate long-standing aphorisms. For example, in 2012, “YOLO” (an acronym for “you only live once”) came to popularity, essentially restating “carpe diem,” or “seize the day.” Adages can also be aphorisms, but not all aphorisms are adages.
The terms proverb and adage are often used interchangeably because proverbs also emerge from local language and culture. An example of a proverb is the Chinese saying “Teachers open the door; you enter by yourself,” which emphasizes the importance of a student’s desire to learn. Notably, proverbs—many of which are aphorisms—aren’t attributed to a specific author or person; some aphorisms, on the other hand, do have a point/person of origin.
Aphorisms and Epigrams
Epigrams are like aphorisms in that they can be witty, but they don’t always convey a truth. Additionally, epigrams are often written in verse, whereas aphorisms tend to be in prose. A common example of this literary device is Ogden Nash’s epigram about alcohol’s power of persuasion: “Candy / is dandy, / But liquor / is quicker.”
Aphorisms in Film
Aphorisms are common not only in everyday life and literature but in other media as well. Most notably, many iconic lines from film are aphorisms.
- “Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.”—In Forrest Gump, Gump says this to a woman seated beside him on a park bench, referencing the surprising nature of life.
- “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”—In The Godfather II, Michael Corleone advises one of his subordinates to avoid retaliating against one of his enemies, suggesting they’d gain an advantage from knowing their enemies.
- “Do or do not; there is no try.”—In the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda scolds Luke Skywalker for saying he would try to lift his X-Wing fighter from the swamp using the Force. Yoda emphasizes the importance of mindset, implying that Luke can either accomplish the task or not—there is no middle ground.
Using aphorisms in film, literature, and other media provides audiences with memorable statements, many of which contain the story’s central message or a key aspect of a character’s personality.
Examples of Aphorisms in Literature
1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
As Frodo laments that the task to destroy the Ring and defeat the evil Sauron has fallen on his shoulders, Gandalf uses an aphorism to change his perspective:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” [bold for emphasis]
According to Gandalf, rather than lament that he has become responsible for this quest, Frodo must focus on the choices he will make throughout this journey to ensure he succeeds.
2. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
After the violent Alex is stripped of his will through the Ludovico technique, F. Alexander plans to use him as an example of why the government’s technique is cruel and corrupt. This conversation between the characters carries the central aphorism of the story:
“You’ve sinned, I suppose, but your punishment has been all out of proportion. They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good. And I see clearly—that business about the marginal conditionings. Music and the sexual act, literature and art, all must be a source now not of pleasure but of pain.”
“That’s right, sir,” I said, smoking one of this kind man’s cork-tipped cancers.
“They always bite off too much,” he said, drying a plate like absent-mindedly. “But the essential intention is the real sin. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man.” [bold for emphasis]
In this exchange, F. Alexander emphasizes the importance of free will for humanity, adding to the novel’s message that free will defines good and evil.
3. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Juliet Capulet, in love with Romeo from the rival Montague family, uses an aphorism to express how she sees Romeo as separate from their families’ conflict:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. [bold for emphasis]
Just as a rose’s nature is to smell sweet, regardless of its name, so is it Romeo’s nature to be the man she loves, regardless of where he comes from. She refuses to judge him by anything other than who he is.
Further Resources on Aphorism
KidsKonnect has activities and worksheets available.
Andrew Hui provides an extensive background on aphorisms in A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter.