Frequently Unasked Questions

If you don’t find your FUQ here, please feel free to submit a question using the Aphorism Alert form on the homepage. If I know the answer, I will post it below. If not, I’ll find out and then post the answer.

What are Geary’s Five Laws of the Aphorism?

  1. It Must Be Brief.
  2. It Must Be Personal.
  3. It Must Be Definitive.
  4. It Must Be Philosophical.
  5. It Must Have A Twist.

Has anyone else tried to systematically define the aphorism?

W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger in their anthology state than an aphorism must be universally true and succinct. John Gross, in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, suggests the following characteristics: brevity, generalization, idiosyncrasy and unconnectedness. There have been several attempts to define proverbs, too. In the 17th century, John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, came up with "six things required to a proverb"; to wit ...

  1. short,
  2. plain,
  3. common,
  4. figurative,
  5. ancient,
  6. true.

In the engaging A Laconic Manual and Brief Remarker Containing over a Thousand Subjects, Alphabetically and Systematically Arranged, published in Toronto in 1853, Charles Simmons said a proverb must be truthful, profound and suitable in its "dress of thought." In his 1869 book Proverbs and Their Lessons, Richard Chenevix Trench provided this proverbial formula: "shortness, sense and salt." He added that popularity, concreteness, rhyme and alliteration help. Then, of course, there is Coleridge’s classic definition of the epigram:

What is a epigram?
A dwarfish whole.
Its body brevity,
And wit its soul.

Is becoming an aphorist a popular career choice?
Not really. In fact, there are comparatively few deliberate aphorists; i.e. people who consciously set out to write aphorisms. Most compose their aphorisms while writing something else, like novels, poetry, philosophy or literary criticism. There is also a small group of spontaneous aphorists; people like Yogi Berra who inadvertently come up with aphorisms in conversation. Some of the greatest aphorists — Chesterton, Emerson, Johnson, Montaigne — would have considered themselves primarily essayists.

Do aphorisms run in families?
There are only a few examples in which family members share an aphoristic talent. George Savile, First Marquis of Halifax, wrote the aphoristic Advice to a Daughter for his daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s son, Philip Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, composing aphorisms in the letters he regularly sent to his son. Ernst Jünger and his younger brother Friedrich Georg were both accomplished aphorists. The Roosevelts — U.S. President Theodore, First Lady Eleanor (Theodore’s niece) and U.S. President Franklin Delano (Eleanor’s distant cousin and husband) — were also consistently aphoristic. The American “Fireside Poet” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. passed on some aphoristic genes to his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. English novelist Aldous Huxley inherited a gift for aphorisms from his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous 19th-century aphorist, scientist and promoter of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Someone else who tried to systematically define the aphorism (Nov. 3, 2006). (See “Has anyone else tried to systematically define the aphorism?” above.)
This just in. Peter Krupka, author of Der Polnische Aphorismus, lists five "Gesichtspunkte des Aphorismus" that share some similarities with my 5 Laws:

  1. author: known;
  2. use: independent, stands on its own;
  3. length: usually one sentence or several;
  4. formulation: succinct and precise;
  5. function: innovation, a new, inspiring thought combined with a deception of the reader’s expectations.

Another reader asks: Do we know who has written the most number of aphorisms? (Oct. 5, 2006)
There are several notably prolific aphorists. Mark Twain and La Rochefoucauld come to mind, each of whom easily penned hundreds of aphorisms. The English vicar-aphorists of the 18th and 19th centuries, like Charles Caleb Colton, also produced a copious amount of sayings; some of them composed collections that numbered several hundred pages, with four to six aphorisms per page. But my best guess as to the author who has composed the greatest total number of aphorisms is Ramon Gomez de la Serna, who was born in Madrid in 1888 and died in Buenos Aires in 1963. He is said to have written upwards of 10,000 greguerías, the name he gave to his acute observations of everyday life distilled into brief, aphoristic insights. (This just in, Dec. 16, 2006: Argentinian poet José Narosky claims to have written in excess of 14,000 aphorisms, which could well put him ahead of Gomez de la Serna.) Which leads me to the following FUQ...

Which authors have had special titles bestowed on their aphorisms?
There is the above-mentioned Ramon Gomez de la Serna, who called his aphorisms greguerías, which means an irritating noise, gibberish or hubbub. There is Russian-Israeli poet-aphorist Igor Guberman, whose ribald rhymes are called gariki, a pun on his name the meaning of which I have not yet been able to ascertain. There is the Danish poet-mathematician- inventor-aphorist Piet Hein, who called his philosophical limericks gruks in Danish and “grooks” in English. The term gruks has no accepted definition. Some suggest it’s a contraction of the Danish words grin and suk (to laugh and to sigh).

Why must an aphorism be brief?
Because only a fool gives a speech in a burning house.

What are Lichtenberg figures?
Lichtenberg figures are lightning-like patterns created when electricity disturbs a material. They were discovered by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German scientist and aphorist, when an accidental discharge traced shapes on a dusty surface in his laboratory. The patterns resemble the veins of a leaf or the tributaries of a river seen from the air. Some Lichtenberg figures can be viewed here.

Have any aphorists ever had any extraterrestrial objects named after them?
Yes, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Robert Heinlein have craters on the moon named after them.

Have any aphorists had abnormal curvatures of the spine?
Yes, in fact, Alexander Pope, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Karl Kraus all suffered from that disability.

What are your favorite books?

You can download the answer here.
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Do you know of anyone who teaches a course on how to write aphorisms?

Rabbi Rami provides this service, in the context of a course called 'The art and craft of the tweet' that explores aphoristic writing as a form of effective communication and spiritual practice. His course description/ syllabus is an enlightening read in itself.

What is "Churchillian Drift"?
"Churchillian Drift" is a precursor to Anatole's Axiom (see the Corrections & Clarifications page for more info) devised by British gnomologist Nigel Rees, and explained by him in his piece Policing Word Abuse: "Long ago, I coined the term 'Churchillian Drift' to describe the process whereby the actual originator of a quotation is often elbowed to one side and replaced by someone more famous. So to Churchill or Napoleon would be ascribed what, actually, a lesser-known political figure had said. The process occurs in all fields."

Have you ever delivered any lectures named after people you admire?
Yes. In 2007, I delivered the Helen Louise McGuffie Lecture at Bethany College, which I attended from 1981–1983. I took Dr. McGuffie's "Cosmic Warfare" course, which was not an interstellar instruction manual for hand-to-hand combat but a wonderful exploration of myth and legend through authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. Dr. McGuffie held classes in the living room of her home, which was recreated after her death in 2000 as a teaching space in the dormitory where I lived in my freshman year. Her classes started promptly at 8:00 a.m.; on those rare occasions when I was tardy, Dr. McGuffie called my dorm room to wake me up. Next year, I will deliver the Sir James Murray Lecture at Mill Hill School. Murray, principal editor of the OED, was a student at Mill Hill.

Does anyone ever ask you about bionics anymore?
Yes, occasionally, most recently in this article from CNN.com.

Have any of your books appeared in major motion pictures?
Apparently, there is a shot of Geary's Guide on Ricky Gervais's bedside table in a scene from Ghost Town.

What is aphorism consulting?
You mean, apart from being a way to provide myself with gainful employment? Click here to find out.

Do you, by any chance, provide an aphorism consultancy service?
Why, yes, I do. To read how such a session goes, read this piece about an event at London's School of Life.

If books are destroying the forests, will e-books save them?
This question was posed by Oxygen, a magazine sponsored by the Italian energy company Enel. Here is my response in Italian and in English.

What's the difference between ad slogans and aphorisms?
For the answer, check out "Where brevity is indeed the soul of wit", an article in Media Life Magazine.

A reader asks: Do you know of any books on how to write aphorisms?
I don’t know any books on how to write aphorisms, I’m afraid. Any such book would have to be very short, in any case. The best way to learn to write aphorisms, in my opinion, is the best way to learn to write anything: read a lot. After reading a lot of aphorisms, the style tends to sink into your brain and you find yourself writing, sometimes speaking, aphoristically.

Have you ever been quoted on any online aphorism or quotation sites?
I thought you'd never ask... Actually, yes, just recently on The Quotations Page. But, ironically, this quote is not an aphorism...

What are the different ways of composing aphorisms?
There are two main methods: the ‘spontaneous combustion’ method and the ‘deliberate composition’ method. The ‘spontaneous combustion’ method occurs when aphorisms spontaneously occur in longer stretches of text, without the author necessarily setting out to write an aphorism. Ralph Waldo Emerson is a prime example of a writer who used this method. Read any of his essays; they are like log piles, with aphorisms stacked on aphorisms stacked on aphorisms. The ‘deliberate composition’ method is that process whereby an author deliberately sits down to write aphorisms and consciously works on individual lines to that end. La Rochefoucauld is the best example of this. He would often start with several pages of manuscript, and then whittle that down into a single gleaming line.

Why are there fewer female than male aphorists?
To be honest, I don’t know. It may be the same reason that there are fewer women than men in a lot of professions: gender discrimination; for a long time, authorship was not considered a respectable career for women. Evolutionary biologists theorize that more men than women are attracted to aphorism composition because it is the ultimate linguistic "display" activity. Men tend to like to show off their prowess — whether financial, sexual, or literary — because over millions of years of evolutionary history that has proven the best way to attract mates. This theory proposes that aphorists are like literary peacocks, and on average more men than women are drawn to fanning out their literary feathers in this particular way.

A reader asks: Are there any aphorism or sayings societies or groups in the U.K. or anywhere else in the world? (Nov. 3, 2006)
The Finns have their own Aphorism Association as well as a National Aphorism Day (May 23) and annual award for the country’s best aphorist, the Samuli Paronen Prize. The Russians have the Moscow Aphoristic Circle, an organization that meets every Thursday in Moscow’s Central House of Arts Workers, where it holds competitions for composing the best aphorisms on specific topics. The Serbs have the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, a group of aphorists whose day jobs range from postman to orthodontist to winemaker to air force pilot. Boris Mitic, a Serbian documentary filmmaker, is making a movie about them. And the Germans have a biannual German Aphorism Convention.

 

So what’s with the fish: click to find out
©1986-2017 James Geary

“Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough”

Spot The Difference

What is the difference between an aphorism and an adage?
An adage is a variation on a proverb and feels slightly hackneyed. An aphorism is always fresh.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an apophthegm?
An apophthegm is an anecdote, usually concerning historical persons and often set in antiquity, that may or may not have an aphorism as its punchline.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an axiom?
An axiom is a self-evident proposition, usually on which an argument or theory is based. An axiom must be true, or at least believed to be true. Truth is irrelevant to aphorisms.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a bromide?
Potassium bromide is used in medicine as a sedative. Literary bromides have the same effect.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a dictum?
A dictum is meant to settle an issue or pronounce a verdict. An aphorism incites debate.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an epigram?
Epigrams usually rhyme, are often funny and cynical, and are always intended to castigate or criticize a rival. When they are also philosophical, they are aphorisms.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an epithet?
An epithet is a nickname, or a descriptive phrase characteristic of a particular individual. While an aphorism is also specific, its application can be extended to encompass groups — of people, things or situations.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an euphemism?
A euphemism is a clever, delicate phrase that expresses what you mean without actually saying it; an aphorism says exactly what you mean in precisely those words that best express it. Click here for the amazing, always amusing Euphemism Generator. Hours of fun for the whole family!

What is the difference between an aphorism and Euphuism?
Euphuism is a term used to describe the ornate, embellished, verbose style of Elizabethan writers like John Lyly. A euphuism is typically overly-long but also strangely beautiful. If you took a page of euphuistic prose, brought it to a low boil, and let it simmer overnight, you would wake up with an aphorism.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a fragment?
A fragment is a piece of writing that is, deliberately or involuntarily, left unfinished. An aphorism is complete in itself, the first link in a long chain of thought.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a haiku?
A haiku is impressionistic, imagistic, leaving an emotion or feeling rather than a thought in its wake. An aphorism, while often deploying startling imagery, always provokes thought in addition to emotion and feeling.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an idiom?
An idiom is a short metaphorical expression that cannot be understood through a literal interpretation of its constituent words; e.g. He “kicked the bucket.” An aphorism is also short and often metaphorical, but it is almost always a full sentence (rather than just an expression) whose meaning is usually not literal but can be discovered through analogy; e.g. “It is hard to dismount from a tiger.”

What is the difference between an aphorism and a joke?
An aphorism is a joke whittled down until only the punch line is left.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a maxim?
A great maxim is also an aphorism. An inferior maxim is merely a rule of conduct.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a motto?
Aphorisms can — and should! — be used as mottoes, but not all mottoes are aphorisms. Run-of-the-mill mottoes are simply statements of belief or principles of conduct.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a nostrum?
Originally, a nostrum was defined as a medicine prescribed by a quack. Literary nostrums are psychic snake oil.

What is the difference between an aphorism and an old saw?
An aphorism gleams with the sharpest of wit; an old saw is rusty and no longer cuts it.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a parable?
A parable is an anecdote, usually fictitious and mostly of a spiritual or moral nature, that may or may not have an aphorism within it that sums up its lesson.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a platitude?
An aphorism shakes you up, unnerves you; a platitude is trite and induces complacency. A platitude is a placebo for the mind; an aphorism is an electric shock.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a precept?
A precept is a motto intended for personal use.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a proverb?
The author of an aphorism is known; the author of a proverb is long forgotten. Proverbs are aphorisms that have had the identity of the author worn away from frequent use.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a quip?
A quip has a shelf life of about 15 minutes. An aphorism is immortal.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a quotation?
A quotation is just something somebody said.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a saying?
“Saying” is a generic term for all these types of expressions, including aphorisms.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a soundbite?
A soundbite is just something some politician said.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a slogan?
A slogan is a motto intended for corporate use.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a truism?
A truism is a platitude presented as if it was a brilliant new discovery.

What is the difference between an aphorism and a witticism?
A witticism, like an aphorism, can achieve immortality, but it is just funny rather than philosophical.