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An aphorism is often widely recognized within a given society or culture; as such, an aphorism sometimes edges toward cliche, and writers should be careful when using one. On the other hand, the aphorism is also closely related to the proverb; and when it was first invented, it would not have been at risk of being a cliche. It is thus important to pay attention to context of use.

Defining aphorism

An aphorism is a short statement or catch phrase containing a well-known or general truth or opinion expressed in a concise and witty manner. An aphorism is different from an axiom (a statement of self-evident truth), a theorem (a demonstrable scientific or mathematical proposition), or an epigram (a short, pithy statement with no general import). Synonyms of aphorism are maxim, adage, cliché, and saying. The word aphorism is derived from the Greek aphorismos, which means “delimitation.” Aphorisms are used in writing as well as frequently in daily speech. Many philosophers, politicians, writers, and artists have coined aphorisms that are still used today. Aphorisms are often funny, which lends them more appeal in the public sphere. Its first known use was in 1528.

Simple examples

Aphorisms represent short versions of wise sayings that have come down through the age to the present time. As such, the wording or version may change with the years, and even be translated differently into dissimilar and similar languages. Aphorisms are used to give advice to children and adolescents, comment upon current events or happenings around the world, and avoid direct personal opinion on difficult subjects in conversation. Aphorisms are many and varied in the literary and rhetorical worlds. They are most often applied to philosophy, morals, and literary works.

Some examples are listed below:

  1. Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old age regret. – Benjamin Disraeli
  2. Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18
  3. Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late. – Benjamin Franklin
  4. Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. – Rudyard Kipling

Sir Francis Bacon, a lawyer and philosopher who pioneered the scientific method, was fond of aphorisms, and became famous for several of them: 

  1. “Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability.”
  2. Praise is the reflection of the virtue. 
  3. To use too many circumstances, ere one come to the matter, is wearisome, to sue none at all is blunt.”

William Shakespeare, famous English writer and playwright, often used aphorisms in his works, and coined many of them himself -- some of which are listed below.

  1. “Having nothing, nothing can he lose.” – Henry V
  2. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  3. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” – Julius Caesar

Aphorism origins

Alexander Pope, a famous 18th century English writer, used aphorisms frequently. Through aphorisms, writers and speakers can teach universal truths to audiences, allowing them to relate to the world around them and the words of the writer. Aphorisms are often used in motivational speeches for increased understanding and relatability of the audience. Relating the subject of writing or speech to their own lives allows the audience to fully engage with the speech or text.

Pope coined many famous aphorisms that are still in use today. Among them are “To err is human, to forgive, divine;” “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed;” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread;” and “Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.” 

Older aphorisms may become so ingrained in a culture or language through repeated use that they are simply accepted as universal truths and rarely questioned. Their origins may fade or disappear altogether. Some examples of aphorisms with unknown origins are “A dog is a man’s best friend;” “A fool and his money are soon parted;” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush;” “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link;”  “A jack of all trades is master of none;” and “A watched pot never boils.”

Aphorisms can lend credence to a character’s dialogue in writing, or be used as a basis for a larger, more detailed plotline. Authors use aphorisms to group together ideas, and express universal truths which capitalize on the themes in a novel, short story, or even (rarely) poetry. A speaker, on the other hand, uses aphorisms to promote their own wisdom, or those of philosophers, politicians, or great women and men who went before them. Aphorisms are often used in deference to these great figures of the past, applying well-known sayings and principles to events and occurrences of the present or future.

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