Aphorisms, Mottos and Sayings

By Maeve Maddox

Many depictions of old people on American television–for example, Grandpa Simpson–reflect contempt for the elderly, but the language presents a different picture. The variety of words for “wisdom passed down the generations” suggests a tradition of respect for the experience of one’s elders.

I’ve already written about the words proverb and adage. Here are a few more English words that mean “an often-repeated wise saying.” The dates in parentheses correspond to the earliest citations in the OED.

Because so many of the definitions for these words contain the adjective pithy, I’ll define this word up front:

pithy (adjective): of language or style; full of concentrated meaning; conveying meaning forcibly through brevity of expression; concise, succinct; condensed in style; pointed, terse, aphoristic.

aphorism (1570)
In a scientific context, an aphorism is the statement of a principle, but in general usage, an aphorism is a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import. For example, “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”

apothegm (1570)
Also spelled apophthegm, an apothegm is a terse, pointed saying that embodies an important truth in few words. It will be pithy and may also be sententious, like one of Dr. Johnson’s oft-quoted sayings: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

axiom (1578)
This term is from Latin axioma, which in turn comes from a Greek word meaning “that which is thought worthy or fit, that which commends itself as self-evident.” In a scientific context, an axiom is a self-evident proposition requiring no formal demonstration. For example, it’s an axiom that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

dictum (1586)
A dictum is an authoritative pronouncement attributed to a particular person or source. For example, Harry Selfridge (1858-1947) is credited with the dictum, “the customer is always right.”

maxim (1450)
A maxim states a rule of conduct or action in the form of a proverb: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

motto (1589)
Nowadays we use the word motto to mean any maxim that a person tries to follow as a rule of conduct. For example, I once had a kitchen with very little counter- or drawer-space; my motto was, “If it will hang, hang it.” Motto originally referred to a word or sentence attached to a design, as in heraldry. For example, the emblem of the Prince of Wales is three white ostrich feathers with the German motto Ich dien, “I serve.”

precept 1375
Similar to a maxim, a precept is a general command or injunction; a rule for action or conduct, especially a rule for moral conduct. A precept that has implications for personal privacy and security is, “A man’s home is his castle.”

saw (c. 1000)
The sayings of King Alfred (849-899) were known as saws, a word that comes from the verb “to say.” One of Alfred’s saws that I can recall without looking it up is, “Tell it to your saddlebow.” That means “Don’t go sharing your plans or worries with others; keep your own counsel.”

saying (1303)
Like saw, saying comes from the verb “to say.” The word can apply to any current or habitual expression of wisdom or truth. For example, “The experience of many lottery winners tends to prove the truth of the saying that a fool and his money are soon parted.”

I’ll let you decide for yourselves which of these nine terms best describes each of the following expressions:

A penny saved is a penny earned.
A job worth doing is worth doing well.
A lie often told becomes the truth.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Actions speak louder than words.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Birds of a feather flock together.
Charity begins at home.
Curiosity killed the cat.
Little drops the mighty ocean make.
Love conquers all.
No use crying over spilt milk.
Opposites attract.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Strike while the iron is hot.
Time is money.
Two heads are better than one.

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8 Responses to “Aphorisms, Mottos and Sayings”

  • John

    It’s hard for me to remember all the difference among them 🙂

  • Martin

    As the company wordsmith, I really love your daily emails. Today’s is too funny, Aphorisms, Mottos and Sayings. I had not even heard of a Saw, let alone knew it was different from a Motto or Axiom or…
    The one expression missing from your match list, “I came, I saw, I conquered”
    Now is that a Saw?
    Thanks for the thought provoking posts!

  • ApK

    I’m with you, John. Some are not al that distinct. I trust readers won’t get too hung up on this. “This book is driving me crazy. The author referred to a dictum as a maxim!”
    But, it is nice to know there are choices.

    And what about colloquialisms like “chestnut?”

  • Scott Mellon

    I disagree that “the earth goes around the sun” is an axiom. If it were then Galileo would not have been tried by the church for saying it. Actually I disagree that there are any axioms in the empirical sciences. Strictly speaking it only applies to mathematics and even there is tricky. Eyclid’s fifth axiom does not actually apply to the physical universe, for example, according to Einstein. This word is tricky and full of pitfalls.

  • Maeve

    The post wasn’t intended to establish any hard and fast definitions. The terms are used with various meanings in different contexts. As a legal term, for example, “dictum” is “a statement, comment or opinion without binding authority.”

  • thebluebird11

    I’m with John and ApK. After a while they all start to sound, to me, as if they mean the same thing (more or less), and honestly I think my friends would really think I had gone off the deep end if I were to use most of these words. I usually use the word “saying,” as in, “You know the old saying…” This brings up the variation of that phrase: “You know what THEY say….” Who are THEY and who made them boss?!

  • venqax

    Re chestnut [ApK] I also like bromide and platitude. Those, of course, don’t relate so much to wisdom or profundity as much as their opposites.

    There is a lot of overlap in these definitions, but I don’t think they are meant to appear mutually exclusive or extremely precise. It is worth knowing, however, that a motto is a certain type of “values” statement, or that a maxim (proverb) is a “this will result in that” statement.

    @Scott Mellon: The Earth revolving around the Sun is probably not the best example of an axiomatic proposition because it is not “self-evident”. But the real point is that in general language an axiom is an accepted truth or a “stipulated fact” that does not require its own proof. That’s all. “Water flows down hill”, e.g. Just curious, DAW didn’t hire you, by chance, did he? 😉

  • Maeve

    Martin,
    “I came, I saw, I conquered”
    Now is that a Saw?

    I think it’s a Boast.

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