Aphorisms Galore!
April 2, 2003 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Aphorisms Galore! For some reason I've never really known what an aphorism is. Actually reading this article at Frieze, I'm not sure anyone really knows. It's supposed to be a memorable, light hearted or philosphical quote which gets the point across very quickly. But glancing through the examples, it seems to be a catch all term for anything. But people like to find labels for things which don't need labels.
posted by feelinglistless (21 comments total)
let us start a war
so we can make stuff go boom
boom bitty boom boom
posted by zanpo at 3:29 PM on April 2, 2003

Oops, I got my threads crossed. Sorry! Should be a Donald Rumsfeld poem. Urk.
posted by zanpo at 3:31 PM on April 2, 2003

Feelinglistless: I recently came across Brainy Quotes, a truly stupendous repository of aphorisms. It's hard to look at, but full of wisdom and wit.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:36 PM on April 2, 2003

The Quotations Page is much easier to look at. (blatant self-link)
posted by mmoncur at 3:53 PM on April 2, 2003

Indeed it is - and very good and easily better all round. So good I've linked it more than once, mmoncur! But Brainy Quotes is stronger on certain authors. For instance, Evelyn Waugh has 14 on Brainy Quotes, but only 2 on The Quotations Page. :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:02 PM on April 2, 2003

An aphorism is a bumper sticker without a car
posted by Postroad at 4:09 PM on April 2, 2003

zanpo, I find your comment equally applicable to both threads.
posted by ook at 4:11 PM on April 2, 2003

I don't think trying for a strict taxonomy of aphorisms, epigrams, witticisms, etc. would ever work. My guess is that most litcrit people consider the comittment to discovering strict genres of writing bankrupt. Without even calling in the theory artillery, you can see that putting labels on such a various and eccentric batch of writings is going to be dodgy.

Take aphorisms and epigrams. An aphorism is supposed to be serious, philosophical, possibly cryptic (Nietzche, pre-Socratics, maybe Kafka in his notebooks), while an epigram (Montaigne?, Voltaire? Ambrose Bierce?) or bon mot is witty, but perhaps also profound, memorable, and often employs paradox or puns. So a totally formal criteria won't distinguish them - you have to point to some difference in tone or something.

What else do they have in common? Both want to express a single thought or impression in an original and unforgettable manner. But that was also, for example, Poe's goal in some of his short stories. I'm sure the difficulties would grow rapidly. It would be interesting to see how old-school critics classically did try to define the aphorism.

So, what? I know an aphorism when I see it?
posted by crunchburger at 4:13 PM on April 2, 2003

Sounds like someone has a case of the Monday's.
(An aphorism is a movie qoute sans movie.)
posted by haqspan at 4:14 PM on April 2, 2003

This is an amusing discussion to apply to a word whose etymology, though somewhat lost to history, appears to come from the Greek for to set off with boundaries or to define. The American Heritage Dictionary, always useful in these types of situations, has a usage note under saying:

These nouns refer to concise verbal expressions setting forth wisdom or a truth. A saying is an often repeated and familiar expression.... Maxim denotes particularly an expression of a general truth or a rule of conduct: “For a wise man, he seemed to me... to be governed too much by general maxims” (Edmund Burke). Adage applies to a saying that has gained credit through long use: a gift that gave no credence to the adage, “Good things come in small packages.” Saw often refers to a familiar saying that has become trite through frequent repetition: old saws that gave little comfort to the losing team. A motto expresses the aims, character, or guiding principles of a person, group, or institution: “Exuberance over taste” is my motto. An epigram is a witty expression, often paradoxical or satirical and neatly or brilliantly phrased: In his epigram Samuel Johnson called remarriage a “triumph of hope over experience.” Proverb refers to an old and popular saying that illustrates something such as a basic truth or a practical precept: “Slow and steady wins the race” is a proverb to live by. Aphorism, denoting a concise expression of a truth or principle, implies depth of content and stylistic distinction: Few writers have coined more aphorisms than Benjamin Franklin.

To me, an aphorism seems more sober and literary, as after long reflection, while an epigram appears more in the realm of quip or dinner-table wit. There will always be overlap between the two, and as the literary tradition declines, it seems likely the words will continue to lose their distinct meanings.
posted by dhartung at 4:34 PM on April 2, 2003

After going through many aphorism websites, I've found I get the most quality quote lovin' from QuoteLand.
posted by y6y6y6 at 4:57 PM on April 2, 2003

Well commented, dhartung. I'd add, just for fun, that the other main meaning of Ancient Greek aphorizein (a prefixed form of horizein, as in "horizon") is 'set apart, cast out, excommunicate,' and although Modern Greek aphorismos can mean 'aphorism' the main meaning is 'excommunication.' So watch out for your immortal soul when you use one.
posted by languagehat at 4:59 PM on April 2, 2003

I recall some less-than-serious less-than-apt quotes being referred as "aphassorisms"... Can't recall who did it; hope I don't get "Sean-Pauled" over it.
posted by wendell at 5:12 PM on April 2, 2003

wendell cribbed his last comment from stratfor! Telling!
posted by crunchburger at 5:20 PM on April 2, 2003

1 : a concise statement of a principle
2 : a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment : ADAGE


usually people use aphorisms to express an opinion as though it's a factual statement, when really truth is a wishywashy thing when it comes to opinions, so aphorisms tend to be not so brill!

sometimes aphorisms are so metaphorical that they're meaningless gobbledygook. often they're just meaningless anyhow, because they're subjective opinion and not objective fact.

oscar wilde had lots of fun with aphorisms.
posted by kv at 7:16 PM on April 2, 2003

My favorite aphorism:

"People like to find labels for things which don't need labels."
posted by soyjoy at 7:35 PM on April 2, 2003

smartmouth geek farmpussy oneliners do not equal an aphorism, hosebucket. As if.

posted by crunchburger at 8:35 PM on April 2, 2003

If you like aphorisms, try to get hold of Chamfort in W.S. Merwin's out-of-print translation: Products of the Perfected Civilization. If you want to go back to the Greek fragments, Guy Davenport's 7 Greeks is kinda neat because you get the barbs of Diogenes the Cynic mixed in with the oracular genius of Heraclitus and our surviving scraps of Sappho (and some pretty racy stuff from Archilochus). Fans of Nietzsche will already know that they love Nietzsche, but they might be missing out on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; Hollingdale's Penguin edition of his Aphorisms seems to have been superseded by The Waste Books. On the subject of nifty Penguins of German aphorisms, let's not leave ol' Schopenhauer out!
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:39 PM on April 2, 2003

"People think they're losing their problems when they divorce; in fact, their problems are just beginning."

From someone close to me, in family law.
posted by emf at 12:04 AM on April 3, 2003

my new favorite aphorism:

"smartmouth geek farmpussy oneliners do not equal an aphorism, hosebucket."
posted by soyjoy at 10:00 AM on April 3, 2003

Thanks everyone. I've always thought that when people think intelligently we can all be educated.
posted by feelinglistless at 2:11 PM on April 3, 2003

« Older The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld   |   Raytheon missile identified Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments