How many times have you heard one of the following aphorism examples?
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” “Curiosity killed the cat.” “Practice what you preach.”
Too many times to count, right?
They’re inspirational quotes. They’re in social media captions all over the web. They’re written in countless books and passed down as folk wisdom.
Aphorisms are so common that we hardly think twice about them.
But not today.
Today, I’ll define aphorism and show you how these handy little sayings make your writing more memorable.
Are you in?
Let’s get started.
The term aphorism originates from late Latin aphorismus and Greek aphorismos.
Now here’s the big question:
How does an aphorism differ from adage or proverb?
Truthfully, there aren’t huge differences between the three. That’s why aphorisms, adages, and proverbs are synonyms for each other.
But one key difference is that for a phrase to be truly aphoristic, it needs to be a short statement.
Repeat after me:
Brevity is the key.
Proverbs, on the other hand, can be much longer than aphorisms and adages.
Take this proverb, for example:
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
It’s a great saying, but it’s not something you’d necessarily repeat over the dinner table.
Now compare that proverb to this famous aphorism:
“The early bird gets the worm.”
See the difference?
Both sayings highlight the benefits of waking up early. But, the aphorism is a sweet, short phrase
Now that we’ve covered the aphorism definition, are you ready for more examples?
Your wish is my command.
And since they’re universal truths about life, they help persuade your reader to accept your message. We see this in literature all the time.
Do you believe that a penny saved is a penny earned?
If you do, you agree with George Herbert’s famous aphorism from his book, Outlandish Proverbs.
The original dictum said, “A penny spar’d is twice got,” but it’s adapted over the years for modern English.
Another aphorism that’s adapted is, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
This quote originated from Thomas Howell in New Sonnets and Pretty Pamphlets.
It originally read, “Count not they chickens that unhatched be…”
Don’t count on things that haven’t happened yet because something unexpected could occur.
It’s better safe than sorry, right?
Speaking of being safe, that’s another aphorism example that you’ve probably heard before.
“Better safe than sorry” is a piece of wisdom from Samuel Lover’s book, Rory O’More.
It reminds us to take precautionary measures, so we don’t end up with bad results.
And lest we forget the bard, William Shakespeare. While Shakepeare often used several aphorisms in his works, the most easily recognized example comes from Romeo and Juliet:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Here, Juliet comments how calling a rose anything but wouldn’t change its sweet smell. She’s drawing a parallel to Romeo, whose last name is Montague, the sworn enemy of the Capulets. But Romeo’s last name doesn’t define him — his actions do.
Here’s a classic Japanese saying for you:
What does it mean?
Fall seven times, stand up eight.
This famous motto highlights the truism that life is full of ups and downs.
So what do you do?
You get up and keep trying. Because let’s face it, perseverance is the key to success in life.
Another success aphorism comes from Chris Grosser:
“Opportunities don’t happen. You create them.”
Thomas Jefferson also mirrored this general idea when he said, “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”
It’s become one of the most viral memes on the internet.
What am I referring to?
The part in Star Wars where Yoda says, “There is do, or do not. There is no try.”
It’s one of my favorite aphorisms because it’s simple but yet powerful.
Take a look:
Luke’s having a tough time, and he’s discouraged.
But Yoda isn’t having it.
He knows that Luke should either decide that he can do it or decide to quit.
Another example comes from Spider-Man, where Uncle Ben turns to Peter Parker and says, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Check it out:
The idea is simple.
If you can do something, then you need to do it for the good of others.
Michael Corleone from The Godfather II disagreed with that. He played the villain in the movie that famously stated:
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
It’s one of the most recognized aphoristic statements today. See for yourself:
George Washington is known for his wise sayings.
He once stated, “It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
This aphorism is short and sweet, but it teaches us a valuable truth:
Life is too short to surround yourself with toxic people.
Washington also said, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”
This is especially true if the excuse is a lie. Washington’s message was that it’s wiser to be upfront and deal with the consequences.
We’ve all probably had to learn that the hard way.
This also reminds me of a precept by Sir Edwin Sandys, a politician who helped establish Jamestown, Virginia.
Sandys said, “Honestie the best policie,” which in modern English is…
Yup, you guessed it.
“Honesty is the best policy.”
Like George Washington, Sandys believed that telling the truth is always the way to go.
Let me ask you:
Have you ever felt frustrated when other people didn’t meet your expectations?
Napoleon Bonaparte could relate.
He once stated, “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”
Oftentimes, it makes sense to delegate tasks.
It’s easier to do it yourself rather than try to explain it to someone else.
Shifting gears a little, let’s talk about one of the world’s greatest aphorists – Benjamin Franklin.
He’s earned that title because he’s authored dozens of aphorisms.
One of his most notable is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
People often use this quote when discussing health, but Franklin was talking about fire safety.
That’s not what you expected, was it?
Yup, he was reminding Philadelphians that preventing fires is better than fighting them.
Finally, “Actions speak louder than words” is another classic example.
The origins of this saying are open for debate, but it’s primarily attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Want a few more?
“A Jack of all trades is a master of none” is a familiar aphorism famously used by Robert Greene in his book, Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit.
The complete quote was, “A Jack of all trades and master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
Interestingly enough, this saying was initially intended as a compliment. It meant that the person was versatile and adept at many things.
But these days?
Not so much.
Today, calling someone a “Jack of all trades” is usually a jab because it implies that their knowledge is superficial.
Another memorable aphorism is, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
This quote came from Wales, first appearing in an 1866 publication.
The original saying was, “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”
One of my favorite aphorism examples comes from Harper Lee. In To Kill A Mocking Bird she wrote:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
The lesson here not to judge others until you understand their worldview — and the actions and experiences that shaped it.
Finally, “All things come to those who wait” is a good aphorism we’re all familiar with.
It originated from Lady Mary Montgomerie Currie’s poem Tout vient a qui sait attendre:
“’Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),”
Now you might be asking:
Why is this stuff important?
Let’s talk about that.
Aphorisms state universal truths about life that encourage reflection.
They’re easy to remember and pass down through generations because they’re concise.
Aphoristic statements also appear in everyday life, such as daily speeches made by politicians and leaders.
Their direct, witty approach is what makes these self-evident truths powerful.
Not only that, but you can use aphorisms in your writing to summarize your central theme.
And get this:
Aphorisms can act as a guideline to help narrow the focus of your work.
For example, in The Boy Who Cried Wolf by Aesop and Musaeus Grammaticus, the moral of the story can be summarized with the aphorism, “Honesty is the best policy.”
Your stories can benefit from this method too.
Pick an aphorism that relates to your message and use it to stay focused on your overarching theme. From there, you can build your story around it.
You’re prepared to use these handy little sayings to make your prose more relatable.
But there’s no certain magic to sprinkling aphorisms into your writing. There must be a method to your madness.
So my advice?
Try this common approach used by children’s authors: Start by finding an aphorism that summarizes the main insight or “moral” of your story. Then use it as a guideline to stay focused on your general theme.
Build a storyline around that saying.
Give it a try!
As they say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
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