An aphorism (from Greek ἀφορισμός: aphorismos, denoting 'delimitation', 'distinction', and 'definition') is a concise, terse, laconic, or memorable expression of a general truth or principle. They are often handed down by tradition from generation to generation. The concept is generally distinct from those of an adage, brocard, chiasmus, epigram, maxim (legal or philosophical), principle, proverb, and saying; although some of these concepts may be construed as types of aphorism.
The word was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The often cited first sentence of this work is: "Ὁ βίος βραχύς, δὲ τέχνη μακρή" - "life is short, art is long", usually reversed in order (see Ars longa, vita brevis).
This aphorism was later applied or adapted to physical science and then morphed into multifarious aphorisms of philosophy, morality, and literature. Currently an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise and eloquent statement of truth.
Aphorisms are distinct from axioms: aphorisms generally originate from experience and custom, whereas axioms are self-evident truths and therefore require no additional proof. Aphorisms have been especially used in subjects to which no methodical or scientific treatment was originally applied, such as agriculture, medicine, jurisprudence and politics.
A famous example is:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Aphoristic collections, sometimes known as wisdom literature, have a prominent place in the canons of several ancient societies, such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, Islamic hadiths, the golden verses of Pythagoras, Hesiod's Works and Days, the Delphic maxims, and Epictetus' Handbook. Aphoristic collections also make up an important part of the work of some modern authors. A 1559 oil–on–oak-panel painting, Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, artfully depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish aphorisms (proverbs) of the day.
Two influential collections of aphorisms published in the twentieth century were The Uncombed Thoughts by Stanisław Jerzy Lec (in Polish), and Itch of Wisdom by Mikhail Turovsky (in Russian and English).
Misquoted or misadvised aphorisms are frequently used as a source of humour; for instance, wordplays of aphorisms appear in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Aphorisms being misquoted by sports players, coaches, and commentators form the basis of Private Eye's Colemanballs section.
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