Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Aphorism and Proverb

Aphorism_(PSF)Aphorism vs Proverb

The difference between an aphorism and a proverb seems to be very minimal. They often cover similar subjects, they have the same basic structures, and there seems to be some overlap.

The words ‘aphorism’ and ‘proverb’ come from Greek and Latin, respectively. ‘Aphorism’ comes from the Greek word ‘aphorismos’, which meant a pithy phrase containing a general truth. That came from the word ‘aphorizo’, which meant ‘I define’ or ‘I determine’, so ‘aphorismos’ probably meant a phrase that defined some aspect of life. ‘Proverb’ comes from the Latin word ‘proverbium’, formed from ‘pro’ meaning ‘for’, ‘verb’ meaning ‘word’, and the –ium suffix, which was used to mark a noun as nominative, or describing what something was. The overall meaning could be considered ‘a word for’, as in ‘a word (or phrase) for the situation’.

An aphorism is defined as a short saying that is both original and conveys a deeper meaning about life, often concise and meaningful, otherwise known as ‘pithy’. This would mean that a quote that conveys some fundamental truth would be an aphorism. A proverb, on the other hand, is defined as a phrase expressing a basic truth. Originality is not specified in the meaning, which is a good thing because many proverbs are said over and over again. However, the definition of a proverb has been subject to some controversy.

The biggest difference between the two, based on many of the examples given seems to be that aphorisms more often quotes from famous people while proverbs are often not given a source.

No amount of reasoning is going to help a person see the way that he does not want to see.
– Romain Rolland, French writer and novelist

That quote has been used as an aphorism. The English language has a proverb which expresses the same idea: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

The majority of aphorisms also seem to be literal while proverbs are more often metaphorical. There are a number of literal proverbs, but they seem to be less than half. This might be due to the fact that the aphorisms are more often quotes. While the writers of these aphorisms might use an example to back up their truth, they often have to summarize their meaning to capture the attention of the reader. Proverbs often come with their meaning attached, since many people learn them as children, so they are more recognized.

Some people say that proverbs are types of aphorisms. However, given the definition above and the typical examples, it would seem more likely that aphorisms are a type of proverb. Specifically, they are ones that are given a source, meaning they are original to the person who defined that truth.

Other people say that the difference between aphorisms and proverbs is that aphorisms are more instructive in nature while proverbs are witty observations. This could be true, given that it’s easier to take the instruction of a clear comment than a metaphor. However, of the examples given for each type, that appears to be the other way around. The aphorisms appear to be more observational while the proverbs are more instructive.

Others say that aphorisms tend to be shorter than proverbs. While this can be true, it is not always true.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lord John Dalberg-Acton

The proverb form – that is, the one most commonly repeated, which is said to be a proverb – of this aphorism is “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which is shorter than the aphorism.

In any case, the majority of sayings said to be aphorisms are quotes from famous people or from novels. Proverbs, while sometimes taken from novels or famous quotes, are most often unsourced. That appears to be the most prominent difference between the two.

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