This isn’t my title (though I wish it was). It’s the title of a delightful book by James Geary subtitled A Brief History of the Aphorism. Aphorisms are quite hard to define. It’s a bit like good art: hard to define, but you know one if you see one.
Geary states the five laws of the aphorism. Like most such laws, they allow you to say conclusively when something is not an aphorism, but many things might fit them that we wouldn’t recognize as aphorisms at all. Anyway, here they are:
1. It must be brief
2. It must be definitive
3. It must be personal
4. It must have a twist
There are plenty for authors and readers too. Groucho Marx always had a different take on things: Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend and inside of a dog it's too dark to read. Or Harold Macmillan (best read aloud): I like to take a Trollope to bed, but if one is not available I'll settle for a Wodehouse.
The World in a Phrase finishes with the modern aphorism. We’ve had plenty of witty minds in our own times. I’ll finish with a few of my favorites:
I don't know who I am. Anonymous.
Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there. Josh Billings.
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened. Winston Churchill.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Bob Dylan.
You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Mahatma Ghandi.
Men don’t protect you anymore. Jenny Holzer (on condom wrappers).
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. Stanislaw Lec.
War does not determine who is right – only who is left. Bertrand Russell.
I hope you’ll add a comment with a few favorites of your own! The one posted in the next week that our independent judge likes the best will earn an advance reader copy of our new novel – Death of the Mantis – due out next month. The judge will stay anonymous. The said judge pointed out Louis XIV's comment on raising people to the nobility. Every time he did it, he said he “created one ingrate and a thousand enemies."