AskDefine | Define aphorism

Dictionary Definition

aphorism n : a short pithy instructive saying [syn: apothegm, apophthegm]

User Contributed Dictionary



From aphorisme < aphorismus < (aphorismos) "pithy phrase containing a general truth" < (aphorizō) "I define or determine"




  1. An original laconic phrase conveying some principle or concept of thought.



short phrase conveying some principle or concept of thought

Extensive Definition

The word aphorism (literally distinction or definition, from ) denotes an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic and easily memorable form.
The name was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. The term came to be applied later to other sententious statements of physical science and later still to statements of all kinds of philosophical, moral or literary principles.
The Aphorisms of Hippocrates were the earliest collection of the kind. They include such notable and often invoked phrases as:"Life is short, art is long, opportunity fugitive, experimenting dangerous, reasoning difficult: it is necessary not only to do oneself what is right, but also to be seconded by the patient, by those who attend him, by external circumstances."
The aphoristic genre developed together with literacy, and after the invention of printing aphorisms were collected and published in book form. The first noted published collection of aphorisms is "Adagia" by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Other important early aphorists were Fran%C3%A7ois de La Rochefoucauld and Blaise Pascal.
Two influential collections of aphorisms published in the 20th century were "The Uncombed Thoughts" by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec (in Polish), and "Itch of Wisdom" by Mikhail Turovsky (in Russian).


Usually an aphorism is a concise statement containing a personal truth or observation cleverly and pithily written. Aphorisms can be both prosaic or poetic, sometimes they have repeated words or phrases, and sometimes they have two parts that are of the same grammatical structure. Some examples include:
  • In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without heart. — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
  • Lost time is never found again. — Benjamin Franklin
  • Greed is a permanent slavery. — Ali
  • Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's. — Jesus Christ, Matt. 22:21 KJV
  • Mediocrity is forgiven more easily than talent. Emil Krotky
  • Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Death with dignity is better than life with humiliation. — Husayn ibn Ali
  • That which does not destroy us makes us stronger. — Friedrich Nietzsche
  • If you see the teeth of the lion, do not think that the lion is smiling at you. — Al-Mutanabbi
  • When your legs get weaker time starts running faster. — Mikhail Turovsky
  • Many of those who tried to enlighten were hanged from the lampposts. — Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
  • A mystic hangs a fig leaf on a eunuch. Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
  • The psychology of committees is a special case of the psychology of mobs. — Celia Green
  • It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger's misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend's success. — Oscar Wilde
  • Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. — Unknown, possibly French proverb, or authored by François de La Rochefoucauld
  • One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. — Joseph Stalin
  • Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see. — Mark Twain
  • It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not. — André Gide
  • A lie told often enough becomes the truth. — Vladimir Lenin
  • Like a road in Autumn: Hardly is it swept clean before it is covered again with dead leaves. — Franz Kafka
  • Love the sinner and hate the sin. (Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum.) - St. Augustine of Hippo

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, Hesiod's Works and Days, or Epictetus' Handbook. Aphoristic collections also make up an important part of the work of some modern authors, such as Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, La Rouchefoucauld, Thomas Szasz, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Mikhail Turovsky, Celia Green, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, E. M. Cioran, and Oscar Wilde. A 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting, Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, artfully depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish aphorisms (proverbs) of the day.

Poetics of the aphorism

The aphorism is considered 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 stitch 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 could, in fact, be considered a masterpiece of oral-poetic art.
"Children should be seen and not heard" contains emphatic repetition 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, Confucius or King Solomon.
Misquoted or misadvised aphorisms are frequently used as a source of humour; for instance, wordplays around aphorisms appear in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams (e.g. Zaphod Beeblebrox saying "Right now I need aphorisms like I need holes in my heads"). Aphorisms being misquoted by sports players, coaches and commentators forms the basis of Private Eye's Colemanballs section.


  • The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism by James Geary
  • "Itch of Wisdom" by Mikhail Turovsky, Hemlock Press 1990 (English edition)

External links

  • Aphorisms galore . Famous quotations and sayings listed by authors and categories.
aphorism in Bulgarian: Афоризъм
aphorism in Breton: Pennlavar
aphorism in Chuvash: Афоризм
aphorism in Czech: Aforismus
aphorism in German: Aphorismus
aphorism in Estonian: Aforism
aphorism in Spanish: Aforismo
aphorism in Esperanto: Aforismo
aphorism in French: Aphorisme
aphorism in Galician: Aforismo
aphorism in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Aphorismo
aphorism in Italian: Aforisma
aphorism in Georgian: აფორიზმი
aphorism in Luxembourgish: Aphorismus
aphorism in Lithuanian: Aforizmas
aphorism in Dutch: Aforisme
aphorism in Japanese: 格言
aphorism in Norwegian: Aforisme
aphorism in Polish: Aforyzm
aphorism in Portuguese: Aforisma
aphorism in Romanian: Aforism
aphorism in Russian: Афоризм
aphorism in Slovak: Aforizmus
aphorism in Serbian: Афоризам
aphorism in Finnish: Aforismi
aphorism in Swedish: Aforism
aphorism in Turkish: Aforizma
aphorism in Ukrainian: Афоризм
aphorism in Walloon: Pinsêye (sicrijhaedje)
aphorism in Chinese: 格言

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

abridgment, adage, ana, analects, apothegm, axiom, bon mot, boutade, bright idea, bright thought, brilliant idea, brocard, byword, catchword, collected sayings, conceit, crack, current saying, dictate, dictum, distich, epigram, expression, facetiae, flash of wit, flight of wit, gibe, gnome, golden saying, happy thought, maxim, moral, mot, motto, nasty crack, oracle, persiflage, phrase, pithy saying, play of wit, pleasantry, precept, prescript, proverb, proverbial saying, proverbs, quip, quips and cranks, repartee, retort, riposte, rule, sally, saw, saying, scintillation, sentence, sententious expression, sloka, smart crack, smart saying, snappy comeback, stock saying, stroke of wit, sutra, teaching, text, truism, turn of thought, verse, wisdom, wisdom literature, wise saying, wisecrack, witticism, word, words of wisdom
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