An aphorism belongs to the large group of words called “sayings”—a strange term, for we say many things such as “hello” or “scram”; all speech is saying. Etymologically, aphorism has the basic meaning of “definition.” It is itself usually defined as a pithy statement of a (would-be) general truth. It is as old as literate humanity and virtually worldwide in occurrence. It is a key part of what is often called “wisdom literature,” whereas much literature in fact teaches unwisdom, fantasy, and nonconformism. Leading aphorists include: Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Nicholas Chamfort (1741–1794), Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880). This entry discusses different types of aphorisms and their purposes.

Its close relatives are, firstly, “apothegm,” defined as a ...

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