Great Moments in Gnomology

1508: Erasmus publishes another edition of his phenomenally popular Collectanea, A Collection of Paroemiae or Adages, Old and Most Celebrated, Made by Desyderius Herasmus Roterdamus, a Work both New and Wonderfully Useful for Conferring Beauty and Distinction on All Kinds of Speech and Writing. The book is a compendium of all the sayings he could find in the works of the classical Greek and Latin authors he loved, as well as a brief history and explication for each one. Erasmus also adds an introduction to this edition in which he praises aphorisms and proverbs as the ideal vehicle for philosophical thought: “An idea launched like a javelin in proverbial form strikes with sharper point on the hearer’s mind and leaves implanted barbs for meditation.”

1546: John Heywood publishes Proverbs, the earliest collection of English colloquial sayings.

1620: In The New Organon, Francis Bacon argues that the aphorism is the best way to educate and entertain. “Aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences,” he writes, “for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order are cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation: and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded.”

1651: English priest and metaphysical poet George Herbert publishes Jacula Prudentum (Outlandish Proverbs), a compilation of English proverbs juxtaposing serious, spiritual sayings with funny, cynical ones.

1731-32: Thomas Fuller, a physician and preacher, compiles two extensive collections of proverbs for his son: Introductio ad Sapientiam and Introductio ad Prudentiam. This excerpt from the preface to the former anthology suggests Fuller’s intention in gathering these sayings together: “Commonly speaking, we gain useful knowledge only by long, hazardous, and dear-bought experience; and can scarce be so much as moderately wise this way till we are old; and perhaps not then neither. But by the help of good institutes, and ripe notions ready made up to hand, without their own pains, young men’s heads may be richly furnished at a cheap rate, and in a little time, with the inestimable treasures of practical truths, probable opinions, and rules of life.” Fuller surpasses himself a year later with Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, a massive compilation of proverbs and aphorisms. Benjamin Franklin is said to have used Gnomologia as a source for some of the sayings he printed in Poor Richard’s Almanac. “All of us forget more than we remember, and therefore it has been my constant custom to note down and record whatever I thought of myself, or received from men, or books worth preserving,” Fuller writes.

1826: The delightful anthology Laconics, or The Best Words of the Best Authors is published in London. (Laconics is the study of short sayings, thus a branch of gnomology.)

1852: In the engaging A Laconic Manual and Brief Remarker Containing over a Thousand Subjects, Alphabetically and Systematically Arranged, published in Toronto, Charles Simmons says a proverb must be truthful, profound and suitable in its “dress of thought.”

1855: The first edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, is published. Though it contains many types of sayings other than aphorisms, Bartlett’s is the longest-lived quotation collection that has ever appeared (so far). John Bartlett, a bookstore manager in Cambridge, Massachusetts, compiled the first edition from his own commonplace book.

1869: In his book Proverbs and Their Lessons, Richard Chenevix Trench provides this formula for the creation of proverbs: “shortness, sense and salt.” He adds that popularity, concreteness, rhyme and alliteration help.

1882: William Hazlitt publishes English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, a collection and incisive study of English Proverbs. Hazlitt pens this charming description of the evolution of a proverb: “A droll or eccentric individual in some petty hamlet or provincial town became the author or the subject of a quaint figure of speech, which accident perpetuated and—if the saying was more than usually catholic in its bearing, or more than commonly meritorious—nationalised.” He also cites John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon during the reign of Charles II, who lists the “six things required to a proverb”: short, plain, common, figurative, ancient and true.

1882: Samuel Arthur Bent, an author and lawyer, publishes the delightful anthology of quotations Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. The book is arranged alphabetically by writer and is crammed with aphorisms, anecdotes and biographical tidbits. Bent even includes parallel lines, in which he lists similar sayings by other "great men." Bent's selections and editorial remarks can seem stodgy to the 21st century reader, but his brilliance, erudition and eccentricity are evident throughout. And despite the sexism of the title, Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men features plenty of female aphorists, too.

1945 Charles P. Curtis Jr. and Ferris Greenslet publish The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker's Anthology. Not exactly an aphorism anthology, The Practical Cogitator nevertheless contains quite a few of them and remains one of the most idiosyncratic collections ever compiled. The book contains many lengthy prose passages as well as some poetry. But the whole is aphoristic in intent and impact. In their preface, Curtis and Greenslet explain they've included "nothing that is not worth re-reading. Some things that can be chewed over almost indefinitely. Pieces that are tough enough, juicy enough to chew. Some that are scarcely worth reading only once ... There is no attempt at complete exposition. The extracts provide pegs, stout and well driven in, on which you can hang your own further thoughts."

1947: Aphorism collector extrordinaire Logan Pearsall Smith publishes A Treasury of English Aphorisms.

1962: W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger publish The Viking Book of Aphorisms, A Personal Selection. In 1970, Auden publishes A Certain World: A Commonplace Book. In 1972, Kronenberger publishes The Last Word: Portraits of Fourteen Master Aphorists.

1965: Robert K. Merton publishes On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, a profound, provocative peregrination along the trail of the aphorism “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Merton demonstrates — through a series of astonishingly erudite, scholarly and witty digressions — that this saying, commonly attributed to Isaac Newton, was actually first coined by Bernard of Chartres, in the 12th century. OTSOG, as the book was dubbed by Merton, is one of the few texts in which the words “gnomology” and “gnomologist” both appear.

1983: John Gross publishes the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

What Is Gnomology?

Gnomology is the study of gnomes, an ancient Greek word meaning ‘charming garden ornament’ and also, more importantly, ‘thought’ or ‘judgement.’ Over time, gnome came to refer to sentences containing thoughts or judgements—in other words, aphorisms. So gnomology is the study and collection of aphorisms, and someone who does these things is a gnomologist.


Gnomology has been around as long as gnomes but only really came into its own as a discipline during medieval times, when learned persons began compiling florilegia, collections of the most beautiful flores, or flowers, plucked from the texts of other writers. These sayings were organized under individual categories for easy reference, just as anthologies of quotations are today.


A writer in need of a quote could then look one up under the appropriate topic. During the Renaissance, these florilegia evolved into commonplace books—personal compilations of memorable thoughts, anecdotes, proverbs and aphorisms that are the distant ancestors of the modern pocket diaries and calendars filled with inspirational sayings that can be found today for sale near cash registers at gift shops and supermarkets.

Gnomo- logical Tomes in Languages Other than English


Suomalaisen aforismiviisauden kultainen kirja. Hannu Makela, 1990.

Aforismin Vuosisata. Markku Envall, 1997.


Deutsche Aphorismen. Gerhard Fieguth, 1978.

Deutsche Aphorismen aus drei Jahrhunderten. Federico Hindermann and Bernhard Heinser, 1987.

Aphorismen der Weltliteratur. Friedemann Spicker, 1999.


Forme Brevi: Pensieri, Massime e Aforismi nel Novecento Italiano. Gino Ruozzi, 1992.

Letteratura Aforistica Italiana. Gino Ruozzi, 2001.


Katzenjammer: Aphorismen. Herausgegeben und aus dem Polnischen übersetzt von Karl Dedecius, 1966.

Wspólczesna aforystyka polska: Antologia 1945-1984. Joachim Glensk, 1986.

Panorama der polnischen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Bd. III: Pointen. 1,000 Aphorismen, Epigramme, Feuilletons, Grotesken, Glossen von 100 Autoren. Karl Dedecius, 1997.

Aforyzmy Polskie: Antologia. Danuta i Wlodzimierz Maslowscy, 2001.


Quotations from Russian Literature (in Russian). K.V. Dushenko, 2005.

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

“Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough”

Modern Gnomologists

Stephen Clucas teaches a course on “the aphoristic” at Birbeck, University of London.

Canadian author and anthologist John Robert Colombo has compiled such books as The Penguin Dictionary of Popular Canadian Quotations (2006), Colombo’s All-Time Great Canadian Quotations (1994), and The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations (1991), among others. In Canada, he has been called John “Bartlett” Colombo for his quotation collecting abilities. He is also something of a theorist of the aphorism. He has even coined an incredibly apt term for the aphorism, one that captures the grand sweep these sayings have had since antiquity with the modern penchant for brevity in communication: aphorisms, he says, are “epicgrams.”

Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize winning-writer for The Washington Post Book World, is an avid and erudite aphorism and quotation collector. All of his books celebrate and exemplify the joys of reading. Book by Book is particularly rich in aphorisms and Dirda's own aphoristic musings.

FragLit is an online journal dedicated to the literary fragment and all things brief, edited by Olivia Dresher.

Markku Envall is a poet and author of Aforismin Vuosisata, an anthology of Finnish aphorisms.

Europhras, The European Society of Phraseology.

Sami Feiring is a Finnish aphorist and poet, a teacher of aphoristic technique, president of the Aphorism Association of Finland since 2005, and a founding member of World Aphorism Organization. He curates the Finnish Aphorism site (, where a selection of Finnish aphorisms is available in translation in several languages. He also compiled an index to Geary's Guide in which aphorists can be searched for by country

The Finns have their own Finnish Aphorism Association (Suomen Aforismiyhdistys). The Samuli Paronen Prize is awarded for lifetime achievement in the art of the aphorism. Paronen is considered Finland’s greatest aphorist. The prize, administered by the Finnish Aphorism Association, consists of a certificate and a sculpture by Upi Anttila. Awarded for the first time in 2006 (on Paronen’s birthday — May 23), the prize went to Helena Anhava. And don't forget to celebrate Finland’s national aphorism day — every April 18!

Mardy Grothe’s is a delightful survey of this aphoristic form.

The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes is an excellent and entertaining account of commonly misattributed quotations, including some aphorisms. Keyes also has his own Toaster Museum, which also includes “some waffle irons, blenders, mixmasters, percolators, cocktail shakers, seltzer bottles, and hair dryers.”

Richard Lederer is a verbivore; i.e., someone who devours words. "If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words," Lederer, writes, "tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language."

Sara Levine teaches a course on aphorisms at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gerd de Ley has published more than 300 small and big books filled with one-liners, aphorisms, and quotations, most of them from the Flemish and Dutch languages. In Aforistisch Bestek 1944–1974, published in 1976, De Ley provides a brief history of the aphorism in Dutch/Flemish as well as some ruminations on the aphorism as an art form. He says that an aphorism inhabits a mental and literary space defined by three points: poetry, philosophy, and cabaret. The kind of cabaret De Ley has in mind is unique to the Low Countries and is a mix of stand-up comedy, Sunday sermonizing (without the preachy-ness), and musical theater. “The aphorism is a parasite,” De Ley writes. “It finds its nourishment, roots itself in and grows from thoughts and experiences.”

John Lloyd is the producer of classic British comedies like Not the Nine O’clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder, and QI. He is also a connoisseur of the quotation, as he demonstrates with aplomb in the anthology Advanced Banter: The QI Book of Quotations.

Franz Mautner a professor at Swarthmore College, wrote widely on aphorisms, specifically those of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Karl Kraus.

Wolfgang Mieder a professor at the University of Vermont, has written extensively on proverbs and edited Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship.

Boris Mitic a Serbian documentary filmmaker, is making a movie about the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, a group of aphorists whose day jobs range from postman to orthodontist to winemaker to air force pilot. Some of these Serbian aphorists are published in the online satirical magazine ETNA, which is run by Vesna Dencic who is also an aphorist.

The Moscow Aphoristic Circle meets every Thursday in Moscow’s Central House of Arts Workers, where it holds competitions for composing the best aphorisms on specific topics.

Rabbi Rami is an accomplished aphorist and aphorism instructor who teaches a course called 'The art and craft of the tweet' that explores aphoristic writing as a form of effective communication and spiritual practice.

Quotes need repair? Proverbs need pruning? Who ya gonna call? Flash Rosenberg!

Gino Ruozzi, a professor at the University of Bologna, is the author of Letteratura Aforistica Italiana, a two-volume anthology of Italian aforisti from 1250 to the present, and Forme Brevi: Pensieri, Massime e Aforismi nel Novecento Italiano.

The Quote Sleuth by Anthony W. Shipps contains tips on “the tools and methods used in the identification of the sources of quotations.”

We have Irving Weiss to thank for bringing the brilliant aphorisms of Malcom de Chazal into English. Weiss and his wife, Anne D. Weiss, also produced an anthology of sayings, Reflections on Childhood: A Quotations Dictionary.

Jürgen Wilbert is an author, aphorist and the founder of the German Aphorism Convention, which is held every two years in Hattingen. Along with Friedemann Spicker, he is also one of the people behind the Deutschen Aphorismus Archiv, a comprehensive source of information about aphorisms—in general and in German. Read Friedemann Spicker's amazingly comprehensive, masterfully multi-lingual bibliography here.

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