Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms


An aphorism is a tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, or a brief statement of a principle. Adjective: aphoristic. Also known as (or similar to) a saying, maxim, adage, saw, dictum, and precept.

In The Advancement of Learning (1605), Francis Bacon noted that aphorisms go to "the pith and heart of sciences," leaving out illustrations, examples, connections, and applications.

In the article "Rhetorical Technique and Governance," Kevin Morrell and Robin Burrow observe that aphorisms are "a highly flexible, powerful rhetorical format that can support claims based on logos, ethos and pathos" (Rhetoric in British Politics and Society, 2014).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "to delimit, define"

Examples and Observations

  • "The word aphorism was first employed by Hippocrates to describe a collection of concise principles, primarily medical, beginning with the famous, 'Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experimentation dangerous, reasoning difficult. . . .' Eventually the term was applied to statements of principles in law and agriculture and extended to other areas."
    (G. A. Test, Satire: Spirit and Art. University Press of Florida, 1991)
  • "Sits he on ever so high a throne, a man still sits on his bottom."
  • "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got."
    (attributed to Jackie "Moms" Mabley)
  • "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
    (often attributed to Voltaire, the words are in fact Tallentyre's summary of Voltaire's attitude toward Helvetius after the burning of the latter's writings in 1759)
  • "All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why."
    (James Thurber)
  • "The first rule of Fight Club is--you do not talk about Fight Club."
    (Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, Fight Club)
  • "An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup."
    (H.L. Mencken)
  • "Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise."
    (Alice Walker)
  • "Your children need your presence more than your presents."
    (Jesse Jackson)
  • "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be."
    (Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night, 1961)
  • A Five-Part Definition of Aphorism
    "James Geary, in his best-selling The World in a Phrase [2011], gives a five-part definition of the form. It must be brief. It must be definitive. It must be personal. (I like his corollary: 'This is what distinguishes the form from proverbs, for instance, which are really worn-out aphorisms that have had the identity of the original author rubbed away through repeated use.') It must be philosophical. And it must have a twist."
    (Sarah Manguso, "In Short." Harper's, September 2016)
  • Aphorisms and Epigrams
    - "Aphorisms are compact and pointed: often, like the porcupine, pointed in several different directions. Oscar Wilde's aphorism 'one's real life is often the life one does not lead' can be understood as either cynical or idealizing; it seems to ask to be taken as both at once.
    "The epigram, a related genre, is closer to a one-liner, and more restricted in its effectiveness than the aphorism. (W.H. Auden gives as an instance of epigram the definition of fox hunting as 'the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable.') William Blake's aphorism 'eternity is in love with the productions of time' conveys a contemplative depth that epigrams tend to avoid in their wish to deliver a stinging conclusion."
    (David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms. Yale University Press, 2007)
    - "An aphorism ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog."
    (Friedrich Von Schlegel)
    -"The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers."
    (W.H. Auden, quoted by Arthur Krystal in Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic, Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Francis Bacon on Aphorisms
    - "[T]he writing in aphorisms hath many excellent virtues, whereto the writing in method doth not approach.
    "For first, it trieth the writer, whether he be superficial or solid: for aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded."
    (Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605)
    - "There is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals."
    (Francis Bacon, "Of Followers and Friends")
  • The Manipulative Power of Aphorisms
    - "Anything that can educate can also manipulate, and anyone selling anything to the public--dictators, CEOs, advertising executives--knows the power of easy-to-remember expressions. I, for one, still believe that 'It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.' Effective ad copy, of course, doesn't have to be true; it simply has to be catchy. But a well-honed aphorism not only stops us in our tracks; it impedes our moving forward. Even if we don't immediately buy into it, it can still deliver a wallop: 'There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper,' Camille Paglia tells us. Is this worth discussing? Or are we being bamboozled by the phrase's conspicuous symmetry? True or not, some aphorisms make it hard to imagine anything better ever being said on the subject. . . .
    "And herein lies the danger as well as the appeal of the aphorism. A statement can be so well put that its cogency is entirely dependent on its formulation, but as soon as we reflect on it we may come to another conclusion."
    (Arthur Krystal, "Too True: The Art of the Aphorism." Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic, Oxford University Press, 2011)
    - "The quoting of an aphorism, like the angry barking of a dog or the smell of overcooked broccoli, rarely indicates that something helpful is about to happen."
    (Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid. HarperCollins, 2007)
  • The Lighter Side of Aphorisms
    "I have been testing the aphorism, 'A watched pot never boils.' I have boiled the same amount of water in this kettle 62 times. In some cases I have ignored the kettle; in others, I have watched it intently. In every instance, the water reaches its boiling point in precisely 51.7 seconds. It appears I am not capable of perceiving time any differently than my internal chronometer."
    (Lt. Commander Data in "Timescape." Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1993)

Pronunciation: AF-uh-riz-um