Aphorisms, Mottos and Sayings
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Strike while the iron is hot.
Time is money.
Two heads are better than one.
Subscribe and Get a Free eBook: 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid
- The subscription is completely free, and we only send out one email per week, on Tuesdays
- Our emails are fun and educating and will help you improve your writing skills
- You can unsubscribe anytime you want and keep the e-book as a gift