last update: 28 July 2020
Wikipedia tells us that a saying is any concisely written or spoken expression that is especially memorable because of its meaning or style. Sayings include aphorisms, clichés, epigrams, epitaphs, epithets, idioms, mantras, mottos, quips and witticisms.
Aphorism - often concerns an important truth or principle, but they can be quite terse or laconic (blunt), but always memorable.
Adage - an aphorism with a philosophical bent and has been around for generations (the test-of-time). Adages sometimes touches on a failure to plan, e.g. "don't count your chickens before they hatch". Adages that are a product of folk wisdom are proverbs, those that describe a moral rule are maxims, and those that are witty or ironic are often called epigrams. When overused they become clichés. Today, adages are often presented as 'laws', e.g. Murphy's Law, Peter Principle, Parkinson's Law, …
Proverb - is a simple, concrete common sense saying, that is a type of folklore. A typical example would be "absence makes the heart grow fonder", just one of a long list of English proverbs. There are also anti-proverbs designed to have a humorous effect, e.g. instead of "a penny saved is a penny earned" you have "a penny saved is a penny taxed".
Apophthegm - Wikipedia calls these "edgy, more cynical", but maybe 'pithy' would work. The alternative spelling apothegm is often mentioned in the context of a fundamental truth or general rule. An example might be "Men are generally more careful of the breed of their horses and dogs than of their children".
It would appear that most aphorisms are attributed to people (aphorists), and Wikipedia list 109 of them (from Aristotle to Oscar Wilde).
We mentioned that adages are often presented as 'laws', and the examples are often named after people (Murphy, Peter, Parkinson). An adage appears to be a special case of an eponym, which is someone or something that is named after a person, place, or thing. In this sense eponym is a more generic than adage because it can just as easily be astronomical objects, diseases, scientific laws or just hairstyles. Check out the full list here, but be warned it is massive list. There is a separate list of eponymous laws, but only some are adages. It appears to very difficult to really differentiate between adage and eponym, but "Ginsberg's theorem" is often called an eponym consisting of a set of adages, which are restatements of the consequences of the zeroth, first, second, and third laws of thermodynamics. In particular the idea that we live in a game that we can't win, can't break even, and can't escape from.
Alongside proverbs there are also proverbial expressions, which are proverbs that are open to alteration to fit into different contexts.
I wonder if some one-line jokes fall into the category of aphorisms.
Cliché is an unoriginal and overused saying that has lost its impact, e.g. "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile". A bromide is a boring statement, and boring or dull people often are called by the same name. A platitude is a cliché that is unsuccessfully presented as though it were meaningful or original. If anything a platitude is even worse than a cliché, some define it as a sanctimonious cliché.
A 'classical' platitude is "nobody's perfect".
A specific type of cliché is the so-called "thought-terminating cliché" (also sometimes called "bumper sticker logic"), where a cliché is used to stop a continuing discussion or argument, e.g. "here we go again" or "let's agree to disagree".
I guess one form of cliché or platitude is the 'truism', a self-evident claim that's hardly worth mentioning, e.g. "Tomorrow is another day".
And there is also the so-called "wooden language" (langue de bois), which is about the use of a vague or pompous cliché or platitude designed to avoid addressing the salient issues. One type of "wooden language" you hear often is 'officialese', with long, complex sentences, salted with code words and fine-sounding platitudes, all delivered with an authoritative-sounding passive voice.
Another term used for some types of cliché or platitude is a 'snowclone', after the idea that Eskimos have lots of words for snow. Template examples including the constant use of "… is the new …" or calling every scandal "…-gate" (or "…-opoli" in Italy). Wikipedia has a list of "…-gate" scandals.
It strikes me that a cliché or platitude is often no different from the so-called "glittering generality". Both types of expression are vague and usually both have some positive connotation to them. Examples often include "common good", 'hope', 'reform', "hardworking families", etc., all platitudes that everyone can accept.
Another feature of the modern day cliché or platitude is the constant use of inclusive language in the world of political correctness.
I'm not sure how to characterise this, but there exists a form of "reverse platitude" designed to achieve the same Machiavellian objective. An example would be to suggest to someone that what they were planning was "very brave" or "extremely courageous", playing on fear of failure or a backlash in public opinion, etc. The result is that the person reverts quickly to using the "platitude playbook". Clearly my suggestion here is that some people don't know that they constantly use platitudes, whereas others know perfectly well the role it plays in obfuscation and manipulation.
Epigram is a clever and often poetic written saying that comments on a specific person, idea, or thing. According to Wikipedia a non-poetic epigram must be witty or sarcastic, otherwise it just becomes another aphorism or adage. A couple of non-poetic epigrams are "I can resist everything but temptation" (Oscar Wilde) and "If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning" (Catherine the Great).
Some people see the epigram as a high form of art, in that it leaves a positive impression by coupling humour with wisdom. Epigrams make people think.
Epitaph is a saying in honour of a deceased person, often engraved on a headstone or plaque. The most obvious epitaph is "Requiescat in pace" (RIP), but I love Spike Milligan's "I told you I was ill".
Epithet is a descriptive term or saying already widely associated with a specific person, place, idea, or thing. Epithets can range from descriptive to defamatory, e.g. 'Richard the Lionheart' to 'Charles the Fat', to the slur 'chink' for Chinese people. An epithet has also been called a kind of glorified nickname, often presented as a sign of affection. The Wikipedia entry for nickname points to a variety of lists of sporting or royal nicknames, and it also has a list of ethnic slurs and a list of religious slurs.
I guess that epithets includes some forms of insult, jibe, name-calling, taunting, teasing, sarcasm, irony, …
Idiom is a saying that has only a non-literal interpretation, i.e. you cannot tell from the expression "kick the bucket" what it actually means. Wikipedia has the webpage English-language idioms.
Here and there you see idioms being classed as figures of speech, but I have left them as sayings.
Mantra is a religious, mystical, or other spiritual saying that is repeated, for example, in meditation.
Maxim an instructional or motivational expression of a general principle or rule of morality, and they include legal maxims (called brocards when expressed in Latin). A good example is "modus operandi", but also "opposites attract" and "the pen is mightier than the sword" are also said to be maxims.
Motto is a motivational saying used frequently by a person or group to summarise its general mission. A motto is usually written whereas a slogan which can be spoken or written and has the goal to persuade. The motto of the Boy Scouts is "Be Prepared", whereas the motto of the Olympic Games is Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) - personally these sound more like slogans but the 'owners' consider them mottos. Wikipedia lists the Mottos of Nations (and several other collections of lesser standing). One always associates slogans with brands, e.g. "Just Do It" with Nike or "A Diamond is Forever" from DeBeers.
"'Friends forever' in 1992, 'Share the spirit' in 2000, 'Welcome home' in 2004, 'One word, one dream' in 2008 and 'Inspire a generation' in 2012 have all been mottos for what event?" Answer - Summer Olympics
Quip is a clever or humorous saying based on an observation.
Witticism is a saying that is clever and usually humorous remark, it's more oriented to an ingenious expression or comment, rather than a joke. Wit includes the quip (a clever remark), repartee (swift, witty reply), and even the wisecrack (sarcastic comment).
Here we have a few test questions…
We all know that the cliché "blue blood" is associated with an aristocratic person, but where does the expression come from?
Answer - It is said that during the centuries when the dark-skinned Moors ruled Spain, many of the old Castilian families took pride in being able to claim that they and their children were pure Castilian and that their blood had not been "corrupted" or "mixed" with the blood of Moors or other foreign people. They used the phrase "sangre azul", an expression that arose most likely from the fact that the blue veins of the fair skinned were easily visible, unlike the veins of those with darker skin.
What does the cliché "by the sweat of his brow" mean, and where does it come from?
Answer - One of the punishments God administered to Adam for eating the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden was that henceforward he would have to work to live. In Genesis 3:19 God says to Adam: "You will eat food by the sweat of your brow until you're buried in the ground ...".
"Great minds think alike" and "think out of the box" are examples of what type of cliché?
Answer - (Annoying) platitudes. The worst thing is that people actually vote for politicians because they constantly use platitudes that satisfy some kind of inner desire to be told that "Hard work always pays off" and "Good things come to those who wait", and above all "It could be worse".
It is often said that the epitaph of Spike Milligan is "I told you I was ill", but is that totally true?
Answer - Not exactly. It was a certain William H. Hahn Jr. (d. 1980) who's epitaph is "I told you I was sick". The epitaph of Spike Milligan (d. 2002) is actually "Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite", which is Irish for "I told you I was ill".
"The Bard", "The Duke", "The Greatest", "The Little Sparrow" and "Eystein the Fart" are all epithets, but who were they?
Answer - Shakespeare, John Wayne, Muhammed Ali, Edith Piaf (La Môme Piaf) and Eystein Halfdansson (8th century king of Norway).
"Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory" is a quip, but by who?
Answer - Franklin Pierce Adams (1881-1960).
Try to guess who wrote these witticisms…
"I worship the quicksand he walks in", Art Buchwald
"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake", Napoleon Bonaparte
"If you are going through hell, keep going", Sir Winston Churchill
"I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it", Groucho Marx
"I think it would be a good idea" was his reply when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Mahatma Gandhi.