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Difference between aphorism or an adage

Is it an aphorism or an adage? Unfortunately, most sources say that aphorisms, adages, axioms, maxims and proverbs are all the same. How are you meant to tell the difference when sources will say they can be used interchangeably? This is not a case of the different ways of saying tomato or potato. It is like saying a housecat is a tiger. Yes, they may have a common ancestor, they are both felines, and they both purr, but I know I wouldn’t grab a spray bottle to tell the tiger to stop scratching the furniture. Now, an aphorism is not going to bite you for calling it an adage; however, if it could, it would do it in a clean, concise, original way which would make you think twice about doing it again. By the end of this you will hopefully have a better understanding of what makes an aphorism and not an adage.

What is an aphorism? Coming from the Greek aphorismos which means to delimit or define, an aphorism is a short, philosophical piece of writing that immediately ingrains itself upon the reader’s memory. It will be personal and definitive and give you a sense of new understanding. Aphorisms such as James Geary’s “The art of writing is the art of knowing what to leave out” impart their wisdom upon their readers. This could be said in many more words by other authors, and has been, however, James decides to sum it up in a short, easy to remember sentence that initiates thought without the excessive prattle of some authors. Another famous aphorism which I am sure most people have heard of is “Carpe diem” Horace’s famous “Seize the day.” It is something that is brilliant in its simplicity and has carried true for over 2 millennia. It imparts wisdom and a sense of importance on the reader. It urges you to live for the moment, to make the most of your time. To sum it up, an aphorism is a saying which stays true to itself despite the years and does not sound like it has been said too many times in too many ways.

What is an adage? Coming from the Latin adagium which means “I say,” an adage is a short, time-honoured saying that imparts the author’s wisdom on his reader. It has been used in its original and in various variations throughout time and while memorable, often they have been deviated from the original or have been reused so often they sound expended. For example: “Well done is better than well said” from Benjamin Franklin in 1737. Other variations of this are “Actions speak louder than words,” “Saying is one thing and doing is another,” and “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” All say essentially the same thing and yet it is Benjamin Franklin’s quote that is the most memorable despite its considerable young age in comparison with the last two quotes which are from the 13th and 16th-centuries.  Adages stay true to their meaning, not necessarily to the words used which can occasionally make them sound tired and overused.

Aphorisms and adages are very similar and often used synonymously despite their obvious differences. They are both concise, direct and they both leave the reader with something to think about based off of the author’s experience. They both are considered truisms. However, it is where they show their differences that make the huge difference. While aphorisms are fresh and stay true to their original form, adages are usually refurbished over the years to adapt to the changing times. If you were to take the aphorism of “Carpe Diem” mentioned previously you could view it this way:

Aphorism: Carpe Diem – Horace 23 BC

Adage: Man leb nur einmal! (You only live once!) – Strauss 1855

Motto: YOLO – Drake 2011.

Essentially, an aphorism is a saying that will stand the test of time in its entirety without sounding worn-out whereas an adage will stay in your mind but will mingle with other sayings of equal meaning. A motto stays true to its Latin derivative: muttum which means to mutter. Thankfully, mottos have a fairly short literary life and are often forgotten despite the prevalence in the present.


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