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Aphorisms: How a Few Words Can Speak Volumes About Life and Living

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is James Geary, author of a new book called "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists."

RS: It's his second book on aphorisms. He calls these sayings "the shortest literary form on the planet" -- and we did find some even shorter than the seventeen syllables in Japanese haiku. Yet even as a lifelong collector of aphorisms, he says he has found it impossible to come up with a short definition.

AA: So James Geary has drafted what he calls Geary's Five Laws of the Aphorism.

JAMES GEARY: "The first law is it must be brief. The second law is it must be definitive. That is, there's no ifs, ands or buts about aphorisms. They just tell it like it is. The third law is it must be personal. That is, it must have an author. And that's the difference between an aphorism and a proverb. Proverbs are just aphorisms that have had the identity of the author worn away by so much use.

"The fourth law is it must be philosophical. It has to make you think. That's the difference between an aphorism and a platitude or a bromide. And the fifth law is it must have a twist. That can be a psychological twist or a linguistic twist or even a sort of humorous twist that gives it that something special, that sting in the tail that really makes an aphorism stick in your head."

AA: "And you just perfectly described an aphorism from Steven Wright, the American comic --


AA: "He said, 'The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.'" I had to think about that one."

JAMES GEARY: "Exactly! But it's a good example of how aphorisms are also like jokes because, just as with a really good joke, you have to think about it. And then there comes that moment of enlightenment when you get it, there's a punch line, just like you get a joke."

AA: "When you realize that the first mouse tripped the mouse trap --

JAMES GEARY: "Exactly!"

AA: "And the second mouse came along and got the cheese."

JAMES GEARY: "Precisely. Steven Wright is a wonderful aphorist. Another great one of his is, 'When everything's

coming your way, you're in the wrong lane.'"

RS: "How did you get obsessed, you said you were obsessed with aphorisms -- "


RS: "Why?"

JAMES GEARY: "Well, when I was a kid, my parents were faithful subscribers to Reader's Digest and at the tender young age of eight I turned the Quotable Quotes section and something about the magical wordplay of aphorisms, the way that so much is compressed into so few words, the sense of humor that you often find in aphorisms, it just really entranced me. And that's how I became a collector.

"Plus, I think because one of the five laws is that aphorisms are personal, they have an author, when you read a collection of aphorisms by a single person, then you really get a flavor of that person as an aphorist, much more than you would if you just read one isolated aphorism."

AA: "Well certainly, it's the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

JAMES GEARY: "Exactly. Now, oooh, I can't think of who that was!"

AA: "Aristotle."

JAMES GEARY: "Oh, very good!"

AA: "Under Philosophers and Theorists, page three hundred nineteen here."

JAMES GEARY: "Well, Aristotle, Plato. The aphorism is not only the shortest literary art form, it is also the oldest literary art form -- written literary art form, I should say. And it started back [in] five thousand B.C. with the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Chinese. The very first written texts are a collection of aphorisms."

AA: "Do you think these started out with the intention to be these sort of philosophical statements? Or did they just sort of happen to strike the listener that way?"

JAMES GEARY: "No, I think they did start out that way. The very first Egyptian texts, for example, are collections of little sayings that a father has written to his son. You know, words of wisdom, words to live by, much as people are still doing today -- the way that every family has a classic saying or two that gets passed down from generation to generation. My father, for example, he was fond of saying 'Little said, easily mended.'"

RS: "Are aphorisms universal? Do they evolve over time, or can anyone from any culture understand them?"

JAMES GEARY: "Yes, I think they are universal, in the sense that I think every culture and every language has its own collection of aphorisms. Aphorisms, they speak to sort of archetypes of human experience, so the basics of living and dying, the essential things that happen to us along the way. This is what aphorisms speak to, and I think this is why they're so potent and powerful."

RS: Next week, listen for more examples from "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists." James Geary is an American journalist who lives in London.

AA: And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. To learn more about American English, check out the WORDMASTER website at

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.