Frequently Unasked Questions
- It Must Be Brief.
- It Must Be Personal.
- It Must Be Definitive.
- It Must Be Philosophical.
- It Must Have A Twist.
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 ...
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.
Peter Krupka, author of Der Polnische Aphorismus, lists five "Gesichtspunkte des Aphorismus" that share some similarities with my 5 Laws:
- author: known;
- use: independent, stands on its own;
- length: usually one sentence or several;
- formulation: succinct and precise;
- function: innovation, a new, inspiring thought combined with a deception of the reader’s expectations.
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.
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.
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.
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...
There is 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).
Because only a fool gives a speech in a burning house.
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.
Yes, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Robert Heinlein have craters on the moon named after them.
Yes, in fact, Alexander Pope, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Karl Kraus all suffered from that disability.
You can download the answer here.
"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."
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.
Yes, occasionally, most recently in this article from CNN.com.
Apparently, there is a shot of Geary's Guide on Ricky Gervais's bedside table in a scene from Ghost Town.
You mean, apart from being a way to provide myself with gainful employment? Click here to find out.
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.
I thought you'd never ask... Actually, yes, just recently on The Quotations Page. But, ironically, this quote is not an aphorism...
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.
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.
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.