What is an aphorism in simple terms?

what is an aphorism definition

An aphorism is an original thought, spoken or written in a concise form, designed to be memorable. The aphorism is ‘the takeaway point’ of a story, article or speech. Aphorisms should be somewhat surprising: “Oh yeah, that’s true actually. I hadn’t thought of it like that. Ha.”

An aphorism is a ‘famous quote’ but before it’s even quoted and before it’s even famous. That said, not all quotations are aphorisms. Without the freshness it’s a proverb. Some quotes are startling and funny but without the universal truth. Those are witticisms.

I want to push a thought as far as I can get it to go. Because I really do believe in the force of an aphorism. The aphorism is an interesting construct because they don’t arrive by argument. Like, you don’t get syllogistically to an aphorism.

An aphorism feels true, it feels right, which is how poems work as well. I wanted to get to a place where what I was saying felt right. Then we can ask why does that feel right.

Richard Deming: Art of the Ordinary, This Is Not A Pipe Podcast, Thursday 31 January 2019


Like stand-up comedians, people who come up with aphorisms are doing their darnedest to come up with some fresh observation about the human nature and human behaviour.

Collections of aphorisms tend to be divided under headings such as: Love, Money, Fame, Nature… Aphorists are ‘professional skeptics’, looking to uncover the truth behind the facade of any situation. Whatever crap everyone else unaccountably likes, the aphorist despises. Everyone else is kitsch.

  • Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery.
  • There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community. (Oscar Wilde)
  • Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed. (Dr Johnson)
  • He that lives upon hope will die fasting. (Benjamin Franklin)
  • You may tell a man that he is thought libertine, profligate, a villain, but not that his nose wants blowing or that his neckcloth is ill-tied. (Lord George Gordon Byron)
  • At fifty, we all have the face we deserve. (George Orwell)
  • Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become. (Arthur Schopenhauer)
  • To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it. (C.K. Chesterton)
  • Climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping. (Jonathan Swift, commenting on ambition)
  • Few things are more shocking to those who practise the arts of success than the frank description of those arts. (Logan Pearsall Smith)
  • What they call ‘heart’ is located far lower than the fourth vest button. (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg)
  • Medicine: Your money and your life! (Karl Kraus)
  • Technology is a servant who makes so much noise cleaning up in the next room that his master can’t make music. (Karl Kraus)
  • Moral responsibility is what is lacking in a man when he demands it of a woman. (Karl Kraus)
  • Virginity is the ideal of those who want to deflower. (Karl Kraus)

Note that almost every famous aphorism of yore has been coined by a man. This says something about who is valued and heard, and nothing about who has said interesting things. For all its woes, 21st century social media has given voice to some of the previously ignored. As a typical example, in The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1981) edited by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, almost 95% of the authors are male.


One of the few well-known woman aphorists is Dorothy Parker:

  • Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.
  • By the time you swear you’re his,
    Shivering and sighing.
    And he vows his passion is,
    Infinite, undying.
    Lady make note of this —
    One of you is lying.
  • Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.

Another is Margo Asquith:

  • [He] always had his arm round your waist and his eye on the clock.
  • The Bible tells us to forgive our enemies; not our friends.

Generally, it seems to be the case that woman aphorists of yore were conditioned by the same strictures which remain in place today: The men sound more angry (because they are allowed to express anger) whereas the women sound resigned to status quo. Women are permitted to be sharp and rueful, but not outraged. Both Dorothy Parker and Margo Asquith sound like they’ve just taken a long drawl on a cigarette. They are frequently more confessional and personal.

Madame de La Fayette:

  • It costs a great deal to be reasonable; it costs youth.

Mignon McLaughlin, 1983:

  • We long for self-confidence, till we look at the people who have it.
  • What you have become is the price you paid to get what you used to want.
  • ‘Pull yourself together’ is seldom said to anyone who can.
  • Nobody wants constructive criticism; it’s all we can do to put up with constructive praise.
  • The neurotic has perfect vision in one eye, but he can’t remember which.



They run to one or two sentences, sometimes a poem if the aphorist is very good. (See Dorothy Parker above.)

In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.

Dr. Johnson

Like any meme, the most spread-worthy aphorisms are easily understood across time and (sub)culture. We feel aphorisms have universal significance.

That said, some aphorisms are only understood by a certain group in a particular context.

Oscar Wilde was talking to other readers and writers of fiction when he said, “The only real people are the people who never existed.” This exists across time, but probably doesn’t make sense unless you’ve given fictional characterisation some thought, understanding that human truth is best investigated via the means of fictional representation.

The thing about big personalities like Oscar Wilde, the aphorisms don’t work the same unless we know it comes from Oscar Wilde. He would say things like, “I must decline your invitation, due to a subsequent engagement”, flipping the expected decline: “I must decline your invitation due to a prior engagement.” he has nothing on, he simply doesn’t want to go. We know this is coming from a snarky, faux-polite personality who likes to do his own thing regardless of societal expectation.

So sometimes we’re talking about aphorisms (with some measure of universality), other times witticisms, personality or context dependent.


Now, because aphorisms aren’t universal if someone from a privileged class is speaking to others in his privileged class, the aphorisms which work the best are somewhat anarchical. They say something the ruling/dominant class would find a little unpleasant to admit, or to hear. They empower the dominated classes by upsetting ‘conventional wisdom’.

Yet there’s still something very in-groupy about many of them.

The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other well.

E;oias Cametti, best known for his work of philosophy Crowds and Power

The best aphorisms are highly meme-able. They are shared many times.


Widely shared, people don’t always remember the exact words. But the ideas contained are understood well enough, so even if people can’t remember the exact quote, they are still able to convey a similar idea.


Like any idea, the aphorism can be dangerous, unhelpful or the opposite. For similar reasons, people are also suspicious of concise social media observations, e.g. tweets. We are now living in a largely online world where it can feel like you don’t exist unless you’re creating quotable quotes, shared multiple times. Some consider it a challenge to ‘ratio’ someone by posting a witty reply which garners more shares and likes than the original tweet.

Some thinkers are very suspicious of the aphoristic thinking which leads to aphoristic content. Speaking of contemporary fiction, Zadie Smith had this to say:

Aphorisms are what young people want to write. They feel like they know things, they think they can sum things up, they’re pleased to sum things up.

At the 2013 New Yorker Festival, Zadie Smith echoes Susan Sontag’s reservations about aphorisms, reflecting on the form as a symptom of youthful arrogance and sophomoric writing.

Sophomoric: lack of maturity, characteristic of a sophomore student.

Alice Munro has also said that she doesn’t go for something which ‘feels true’. She doesn’t use the word aphorism or aphoristic, but in a 1994 speech she said this:

I want my stories to be something about life that causes people not to say “Oh, isn’t that the truth,” but to feel some kind of reward from the writing.

Alice Munro

An aphorist is a writer with an extra-sharp pen and a short supply of ink–a generalization, of course, yet what else is an aphorism but a generalization, as broad as it is terse?

Melvin Maddocks, The Art of the Aphorism

Writers don’t arrive at aphorism by argument in the scientific, logical sense. An aphorism feels true and feels right. This is not necessarily a bad thing — poems work in the same way. Every word of a good aphorism has the potential for meaning. It seems clear and true, but the more you think about it, the less pure it seems, actually.

Aphorism: Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery.
Criticism of the aphorism: Yeah, haha, but it’s also plagiarism and copyright violation. The aphorism makes plagiarism acceptable, somehow.

Aphorism: Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures. (Dr. Samuel Johnson)
Criticism: This sounds like a ‘hen-pecked husband’ joke, shared between men complaining about their wives. This isn’t a universal statement at all, but expresses Dr. Johnson’s personal experience that he’d rather not have a wife, but he’d miss sex. This is a specifically allosexual, heterosexual, patriarchal (misogynistic) way of looking at the world, which has the appearance of universality only because people with those labels are the dominant demographic.

Aphorism: At fifty, we all have the face we deserve. (George Orwell)
Criticism: Is it really true that a sour personality creates a sour expression which sets permanently over time? This well-known aphorism fails to take look-ism into account, and the impact of genetic stochasticity.


Aphorisms become memes because they don’t rely on context. Take away the story, the rest of the speech, they still make sense on their own. If it can’t make sense on its own, it’s not an aphorism.


Writers don’t necessarily know they’re writing an aphorism until their work reaches its audience, and one particular line or two takes off, gets repeated. (Of course, savvy writers, advertising professionals and politicians know exactly which lines will likely take off.)

Some people known for their aphorisms wrote standalone examples, outside a bigger narrative. French aphorist La Rochefoucauld is a famous example of that.

Others, like Samuel Johnson, also contributed many aphorisms to the culture but his were embedded in longer work.

To us it makes no difference. We remember the standalone aphorisms regardless of how they started out.


In her criticism of certain kinds of modern ‘aphoristic’ writers, Zadie Smith was complaining about stories which share the ingredients of aphorism: they make connections which feel true and unique but which seem mainly for the purpose of showing off the authors smarts and wit.

Still, people like aphorisms. Shakespeare’s plays are full of them:

  • The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
  • Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

A good aphorism is a good combination of ideas, and William Shakespeare was very good at combining:

  • concreteness with abstractness
  • denotation with connotation
  • specificity with implication
  • precision with poetry

That’s why Shakespeare’s aphorisms work so well. It bears saying, Shakespeare went beyond the aphorism and wrote lines which are genuinely moving rather than smart-aleck and epigrammatic.


Aphorisms can be banal or they can be funny, but there’s another word for aphorisms with a humorous twist: Epigrams. You could argue that without any irony or humour to speak of, aphorisms lack that meme-able quality. People don’t share them nearly so often when they’re not somewhat funny.

Oscar Wilde was fond of witty aphorisms (epigrams), and would have been good at Twitter:

  • All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.
  • To realise one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for.

As a young person, Modernist short story writer Katherine Mansfield was especially taken by Oscar Wilde’s epigrams/aphorisms and would copy them into her journal, interspersing them with epigrams of her own, mimicking his style:

  • To acknowledge the presence of fear is to give birth to failure.
  • Happy people are never brilliant. It implies friction.
  • Ambition is a curse if you are not proof against everything else—unless you are willing to sacrifice yourself to your ambition.


Don’t we call these things proverbs? Yes, we do, once they’re old enough and have been repeated enough. (Which requires them being old.) There’s no clear line between an aphorism and a proverb.

Basically, an aphorism is an aphorism because it feels like someone made a fresh connection. Obviously, once everyone’s heard it, it’s no longer fresh, and no longer has the main criterion required of an aphorism. It feels old and obvious.

But someone had to make it up in the first place. Basically, the best aphorisms gradually turn into proverbs.


A koan is a question or succinct paradoxical statement posed to a student of Buddhism to help them seek the truth. It sounds a lot like an aphorism but has that specific purpose of teaching specific lessons to a specific group of people.


A gnomic utterance is a short, mysterious, and not easily understood observation. Although you don’t fully get what it means, it seems wise. You’re sure it has some universal significance, if only you were a little smarter and fully understood it.

But actually, someone who busts out with gnomic utterances isn’t saying much. They are pithy and terse and the speaker seems smart, but are they? The reason they’re keeping it short is so you don’t have enough material to come back with a takedown argument.

Has nothing to do with gnomes. Comes from French ‘gnomique’ and various Greek words around ‘thought’ and ‘maxims’.

Someone who uses a lot of pithy aphorisms may be said to have a ‘gnomic way of speaking or writing’.

(The gnomes in your garden come from Latin gnomus, synonym of Pygmaeus, a mythical race of tiny people.)


Confucius was the first teacher in China who wanted to make education broadly available. He was instrumental in establishing the art of teaching as a vocation. He said many memorable things which have the ingredients of an aphorism:

  • It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.
  • Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. 
  • Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

But perhaps you’ve heard aphorisms parodied with “Confucious say…” jokes:

  • Confucius say, man who go to bed with an itchy bum wake up with a smelly finger.
  • Confucius say, man who have last laugh, not get joke.
  • Confucius say, man who jump through screen door, strain self.

Although written in broken English, they frequently rely on pun to work:

  1. Confucius say, man who run before bus get tired.
  2. Confucius say, man who run behind bus get exhausted.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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