apothegm
n. a short, witty, and instructive saying

Also apophthegm.

This is such a wild and crazy word (especially the alternate spelling, which is closer to the original Greek and was reinstated by Samuel Johnson in England, where it remains the preferred spelling). It comes from the Greek apophthegma (analogous to our “quip”), itself a derivation of apophthéngesthai, which is a combination of the prefix apo- (“from”) and phthengesthai (“to utter”). It is somewhat related, etymologically, to aphorism.

The preponderance of synonyms can be confusing, so here is a basic primer.

adage
A short quip or saying which has gained credibility through experience or long use
e.g. Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
From the Latin adagium, of the same meaning.
maxim
An adage or saying that describes succinctly a universal truth or rule of conduct
e.g. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” (La Rochefoucauld)
From the Latin maxima propositio, or “greatest premise.”
axiom
A self-evident or universally-recognized truth (somewhat related to “maxim,” but used generally as a starting assumption for further deduction).
e.g. “Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another” (Euclid)
From the French axiome, from the Latin and Greek axioma, meaning “authority” or literally “that which is thought fit.”
aphorism
A brief statement of a principle (similar to “maxim” but often marked by rhetorical flair)
e.g. “That which does not destroy us makes us stronger” (Nietzsche)
From the French aphorisme, from the Latin aphorismus, and ultimately from the Greek aphorismos, literally “definition”
proverb
A short pithy saying in widespread use that expresses a basic truth or practical precept (synonymous with “adage”)
e.g. “Many hands make light work” (old Irish proverb)
From the Old French proverbe, from the Latin proverbium (a common saying).
§1761 · March 15, 2007 · Tags: , ·

2 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: apothegm”

  1. rob says:

    He was well endowed though you’ve got to give him that

  2. Ben says:

    As the old proverb says, “It not the size of the ship; it’s the motion of the ocean.”

    Also, he more or less sucked at life.

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