Definition and Examples of Aphorisms

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. This is 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).

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."
    (Montaigne)
  • "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)

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)