In a BBC-TV adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown and the Three Tools of Death,” a police sergeant makes a smart-alecky remark, and his boss tells him, “I can do without the epigrams.” The sergeant—proving he is, in fact, an incorrigible smart-aleck—replies, “Aphorisms, really.” So what’s the dif?
Not much, when you get right down to it. An epigram, from Greek words meaning “to write or carve upon,” is a terse, sage, witty, often paradoxical, saying, sometimes in verse, but very often in prose. Musician and wit Oscar Levant said, epigrammatically, “An epigram is a wisecrack that played Carnegie Hall.” A famous epigram is Benjamin Franklin’s “If we do not all hang together, we shall all hang separately.”
An aphorism, also Greek, from a root meaning “shaped by boundaries,” is a concise statement of a principle. Sounds pretty much the same as an epigram, with more truth and less paradox. An aphorism that expresses the same thought as Franklin’s epigram is “There is safety in numbers.”
While we’re on the subject, we might as well let it all hang out and let you know that an adage, from a Latin root meaning “I say,” is a saying, often metaphorical, that embodies a common observation. “Birds of a feather flock together” is an adage that expresses the same notion of solidarity as the epigram and aphorism above. A maxim, from the Latin for “largest,” is a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct. “Be loyal to your friends” is a good maxim to follow.
If you need to know any more, well, there’s a dictionary in every public library, which is the last possible place you might expect to find the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who ventured outside his unkempt lair just long enough to slip the following epigrams—or are they aphorisms?—under the door:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,
And a slap on the back is worth two on the tush.
A stitch in time, they say, saves nine—
But to go without a stitch is also fine.
A fool and his money may soon be parted,
When the fool has a car that can’t be started.
A rolling stone will gather no moss,
And a stone with no moss is like a goose with no