Adage, Maxim, Axiom, Proverb or Aphorism…


I probably spend way too much times flipping through the dictionary and playing word games on my phone.

I love crossword puzzles and word jumbles.

If I hear a word I’m not familiar with, I resort to a dictionary.

Remember, when Hawkeye Pierce on “MASH” was asked, “If you could only have one book, which one would you want to have?”

He replied, “The dictionary. I figure it’s got all the other books in it.”


There’s a lot of good reading in a dictionary.

So I stumbled upon the word “adage” which is defined as “a proverb or short statement expressing a general truth.”

They are concise and philosophical.

An “axiom” you say?

That’s a statement or a proposition, which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.”

Sounds similar to a “maxim” which is “a short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule of conduct.”

Seems similar to a “proverb” or, “a short, pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.”

How’s that different from an “aphorism” which is a pithy observation that contains a general truth

(BTW, “pithy” is defined a “concise and forcefully expressive.”)

I spend a lot of time with the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” which seems to be a lot like “Poor Richard’s Almanac”” written by Ben Franklin from 1732-1758.

The man who thought the turkey should be our national bird instead of the bald eagle used this writing to share weather forecasts, household tips, tricks and lots of fun facts.

From “Poor Richard’s Almanack” we get, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“Eat to live and not live to eat.”

“Little strokes fell mighty oaks.”

“Early to be, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

“Fish and visitors stink after 3 days”.

All this from a man who flew a kite in a thunderstorm.

Many adages are reflections on life experiences that many of us can relate to.

“Birds of a feather flock together.”

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.”

“To err is human; to repent divine; to persist devilish.”

“Look before you leap.”

“Well done is better than well said.”

(Except when ordering a steak.)

There’s also “adagia”, first published in 1500, a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs which attempt to dole out advice and they can go on to become adages.

“Don’t put the cart before the horse.”

“Many hands make light work.”

“Let’s call a spade a spade.”

Aesop’s fables, you say?

They were developed by a slave from ancient Greece and go as far back as 620BC.,

“Things are not always as they seem.”

“Appearances often are deceiving.”

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

“Slow and steady wins the race.”

Sometimes, singular lines from entire works go on to be quoted and regarded as truth.

From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s work, “In Memoriam” which he took 17 years to complete after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallan, we have “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

“The early bird catcheth (catches) the worm” is credited to John Ray in a 1678 collection of English proverbs.

Greek philosopher Aristotle told us “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

And, we only have to dial back the clock to 1994 when Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

(My sisters used to bite small bits from the candies and try to hide it with the brown, paper cup in the box. They didn’t like coconut.)

we cannot exclude the Bible from this discussion, either.

“A leopard cannot change his spots” is from Jeremiah 13:23.

“Pride goes before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:19)

“The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

“The truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32)

There are also “aphorisms.”

They are brief sayings or phrases expressing an opinion or makes a statement of wisdom without the flowery language of a proverb.

Hippocrates first coined the term in a work called, are you ready for this? “Aphorisms”.

“Actions speak louder than words.”

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

“If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Regarding that last aphorism, I go back to my childhood days in northern Ohio.

On Channel 5, WEWS in Cleveland, we used to watch Captain Penny (Ron Penfound) afternoons.

The “Captain Penny Show” featured “The Little Rascals” ( had a crush on Darla!) and “The Three Stooges”.

Decked out in his train engineer garb, Captain Penny would often stir up a glass of chocolate milk with Bosco chocolate syrup and chug it.

And, from time to time, Captain Penny would look into the camera and tell me, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…but you can’t fool Mom. She’s pretty nice and she’s pretty smart.”

“The Captain” told me if we did what Mom said, I couldn’t go wrong.”

You know what?

“Captain Penny” was right!

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