Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Adage - crocodile tears
The adage 'crocodile tears'. Tobias Bernhard/Getty Images

An adage is an ancient saying or maxim, brief and sometimes mysterious, that has become accepted as conventional wisdom. In classical rhetoric, an adage is also known as a rhetorical proverb or paroemia.

An adage—such as "The early bird gets the worm"—is a condensed and memorable expression. Often it's a type of metaphor.
"It is sometimes claimed that the expression old adage is redundant," say the editors of the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style,"inasmuch as a saying must have a certain tradition behind it to count as an adage in the first place. But the word adage [from the Latin for "I say"] is first recorded in the phrase old adage, showing that this redundancy is itself very old."

Pronunciation: AD-ij


  • "Know thyself."
  • "All's well that ends well."
  • "Out of nothing, nothing can come."
  • "Art lies in concealing the art."
  • "From flowers, bees make honey and spiders poison."
  • "A stitch in time saves nine."
  • "Not quantity, but quality."
  • "Make haste slowly."
  • "Physician, heal thyself."
  • "Respect thyself, if thou wouldst be respected by others."
  • "The people reign, the elite rule."
  • "Knowledge equals power."
  • "Love conquers all."
  • "If you want peace, prepare for war."
  • "Who will guard the guards?"
  • "What hurts us instructs us."
  • "Whom the gods destroy they first make mad."
  • "Give your child to a slave, and instead of one slave you will have two."
  • "A great city is a great solitude."
  • "Carpe diem." ("Seize the day.")
  • "Be mindful of dying."
  • "Better late than never."
  • "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

Adages and Cultural Values

"[C]onsider the cultural values that adages, or common sayings, express. What is meant by the American saying, 'Every man for himself'? Does it reflect the idea that men, and not women, are the standard? Does it reflect individualism as a value? What is meant by 'The early bird catches the worm'?
"Distinct values are expressed in adages from other cultures. What values are expressed in the Mexican proverb, 'He who lives a hurried life will soon die'? How is this view of time different from dominant views of time in the United States? In Africa, two popular adages are 'The child has no owner' and 'It takes a whole village to raise a child,' and in China a common saying is 'No need to know the person, only the family (Samovar & Porter, 2000). A Japanese adage states that 'it is the nail that sticks out that gets hammered down' (Gudykunst & Lee, 2002). What values are expressed by these sayings? How are they different from mainstream Western values and the language that embodies them?"
(Julia T. Wood, Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, 7th ed. Wadsworth, 2013)

Tools of Persuasion

"As indirect tools of persuasion, adages are understandably attractive to people who judge direct confrontation and criticism inappropriate in many contexts."
(Ann Fienup-Riordan, Wise Words of the Yup'ik People. University of Nebraska Press, 2005)

Age as a Part of Adage

"Dictionaries (with a single exception) affirm in one way or another that an adage is a long-established saying; therefore the 'old' [in the expression 'old adage'] is redundant. Incidentally, an expression that someone thought up yesterday is not an adage. To put it another way--and this is obvious--'age' is a part of adage." (Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Simon & Schuster, 1965)

Safire on Adages

"Those of us who enjoy living in synonymy know that an adage is not quite as graven in collective wisdom as a proverb or a maxim; it is not as legalistic as a dictum or as scientific as an axiom or as sentimental as a homily or as corny as a saw, nor as formalized as a motto, but it is more rooted in tradition than an observation." (William Safire, Spread the Word. Times Books, 1999)

The Adagia (Adages) of Desiderius Erasmus (1500; rev. 1508 and 1536)

"Erasmus was an avid collector of proverbs and aphorisms. He compiled all the expressions he could find in the works of the classical Greek and Latin authors he loved, and provided a brief history and explication for each one. 'When I considered the important contributions made to elegance and richness of style by brilliant aphorisms, apt metaphors, proverbs, and similar figures of speech, I made up my mind to collect the largest possible supply of such things.' he wrote. So in addition to 'Know thyself,' readers of Erasmus's Adages are treated to pithy accounts of the origins of such expressions as 'to leave no stone unturned,' 'to cry crocodile tears,' 'no sooner said than done,' 'clothes make the man,' and 'everyone thinks his own fart smells sweet.' Erasmus added to and revised the book throughout his life, and by the time he died in 1536 he had collected and explained 4,151 proverbs.

"Erasmus intended the book to be a Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for 16th-century after-dinner speakers: a resource for writers and public orators who wanted to spice up their speeches with well-placed quotes from the classics." (James Geary, The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism. Bloomsbury USA, 2005)

  • "Many hands make light work."
  • "Put the cart before the horse"
  • "Walk the tightrope"
  • "Call a spade a spade"
  • "Between friends all is common."
  • "To die laughing"
  • "Like father, like son"
  • "The project of the Adages, like many manuals published in the 16th century, was to harvest all possible vestiges of antiquity and put them at the disposal of scholars. In this particular case, Erasmus sought to collect and explain proverbs, aphorisms, figurative expressions, all sorts of more or less enigmatic sayings. . . .

"An adage is like a bud that contains the latent promise of a flower, an enigmatic expression, a mystery to unravel. The ancients veiled their messages, deposited clues to their culture in their language; they wrote in code. The modern reader breaks the code, opens the coffers, takes out the secrets and publishes them, even at the risk of altering their force. The author of Adages [Erasmus] acted as an intermediary, made a profession of displaying and multiplying. So it was normal that his book, both cornucopia and organ of distribution, would operate with centrifugal dynamics." (Michel Jeanneret, Perpetual Motion: Transforming Shapes in the Renaissance from Da Vinci to Montaigne, 1997. Translated by Nidra Poller. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

The Lighter Side of Adages: George Burns and Gracie Allen

Special Agent Timothy McGee: I think it's time you get back on that horse.
Special Agent Ziva David: You're getting a pony?
Special Agent Timothy McGee: It's an adage.
Special Agent Ziva David: I am not familiar with that breed.
(Sean Murray and Cote de Pablo in "Identity Crisis." NCIS, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "adage." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). adage. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "adage." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).