Presidential Grammar 101: Aphorisms, Adages, and Proverbs

I know.  We’ve all been there.  You’re snoozing away in your cozy bed, adrift in the Land of Nod, and then you wake up, in a cold sweat and with your heart pounding.  What, you find yourself asking, is the difference between an aphorism, an adage, and a proverb?  It’s not as easy as you might think, actually, so your midnight panic attack is entirely understandable.  Luckily for you, I am ready, as ever, to help you out.

According to the fine folk at Smart Words (and who am I to say otherwise?) an aphorism is a pithy and memorably phrased statement of a truth or an opinion.  One of my favorite examples of an aphorism is from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines.”  Seriously, isn’t that just the most beautifully expressed critique of people who relentlessly demand conformity for the mere sake of conformity? You know, the kind of crank who holds rallies and demands total submission to whatever cockamamy idea or outright lie he’s spouting off? Another aphorism that keeps buzzing through my mind these days (goodness only knows why) is Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Short, to the point, and easy to remember:  I’d happily posit that these two are pretty much perfect examples of aphorisms.

An adage appears to be a grown-up aphorism that has passed the test of time and slipped into common usage. Alexander Pope is responsible for quite a few aphorisms that have morphed into adages: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast;” “To err is human; to forgive, divine;” “Fools rush in where angels fear to dread;” etc.  The words trip out of the speaker’s mouth so naturally that it is easy to forget that they were once original thoughts. I find adages frightfully earnest, mainly because they have lost whatever irony they might have had when first uttered. People say them, thinking that they are pointing out some profound truth, when actually Pope was a pretty sarcastic man capable of saying some caustic things. I mean, my goodness, he doesn’t have a lot of faith in the human capacity for wisdom, forgiveness, or realism, does he?  However, whatever sharpness his finely wrought words once held has been smoothed out from constant repetition over the ages.  Maybe it’s the fact that Pope was a poet, lending an innate cadence to his words that makes you stop noticing how cynical he’s being.  That’s the peril of becoming an adage: unthinking repetition causes the words to lose their glint, and they run the danger of becoming tawdry clichés.   (On the other hand, I can’t imagine Dorothy Parker’s aphorism that “you can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think” will ever attain the status of an adage!)

So, what are proverbs, then?  Well, again according to Smart Words, a proverb is “a simple and short saying, widely known, often metaphorical, which expresses a basic truth or practical precept, based on common sense or cultural experience.”  In other words, these sayings are so old that they seem to have sprung up from some well in the depths of our collective consciousness.  “A watched pot never boils.”  “Birds of a feather flock together.” “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”  But since we’re talking about language, there are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  Some of our best-known proverbs in English (“Early to bed, early to rise, etc.”) are attributable to Benjamin Franklin.  So much for the non-attribution of proverbs, huh?

All of this is great fun, of course, but you’re probably wondering why I brought this fascinating subject up in the first place.  Well, I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve noticed that a number of aphorisms, proverbs, and adages have become scarily literal.  In general, figures of speech are metaphorical, dammit, and they should stay that way.  What’s weirder is that other sayings seemed to have disappeared as completely as Rudy Giuliani’s sanity.

For example, significant members of the Trump family appear to have taken the adage that “charity begins at home” quite literally indeed. The general understanding of this saying is that your first responsibility is to yourself and your family; if you don’t take care of them, then you can’t help others.  Dickens, with his characteristic subtlety, used Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House to outrageously lampoon people who neglect this primary responsibility. Mrs. J. gleefully spends all her time worrying about setting up a mission in Africa instead of tending to her frightfully feral children.  Needless to say, her African venture isn’t much of a success, either. The Trumps, on the other hand, appear to be the anti-Jellybys. Their charity is all about the home. In fact, not only does charity start chez Trump, but it is locked up good and tight and never allowed to see the light of day.  According to the Attorney General of New York, the Trump Foundation is not so much a philanthropic entity as an ancillary checking account.  And some of the allegations are so outrageous (for example, the Board had not met for nineteen years, and the official treasurer had no idea that he held the position), that a reader might be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Dickens had written the petition.

An example of an aphorism coming to life is Shakespeare’s statement from The Merchant of Venice that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”  Just the other day, Attorney General Jefferson Beau-regard Sessions quoted Romans 13:1 (“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Sorry if this isn’t the version Sessions quoted, but I simply adore the King James Version, don’t you?))  Given the fondness our Attorney General has for the Confederate flag, it should come as no surprise that he would quote this particular verse:  it was, after all, used by slaveholders to justify adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act.  No—what I found shocking was the malicious gleam in his eyes and, dare I say it?, his impish smile.  Seriously—watch it here.  And then tell me this:  are those liver spots on his forehead, or are they just where he hides his horns?

As for proverbs, well look no farther than Scott Pruitt.  The head of the EPA is literally “muddying the waters” and “taking up all the oxygen in the room.”  And just between us, I think the real reason why Sarah Huckleberry Slanders always wear dresses is that she’s terrified that her pants will spontaneously combust from telling one too many lies.

But just as the White House has become a veritable tableau vivant of some old sayings, there are quite a few that are MIA:  “the buck stops here,” “honesty is the best policy,” and “follow the golden rule,” for example, appear to have been utterly banished.  Trump seems to have taken “make new friends” to heart, as he ignites a bromance with Kim Jong Un ( Gosh! I hope Vlad isn’t jealous!), yet he seems to have allowed the second part (“but keep the old”) to fall by the wayside at the last G-7 summit.  And here’s the weirdest one of all:  Trump’s own aphorism to “drain the swamp” came alive when a  sinkhole appeared on the White House lawn, but its metaphorical meaning—to eradicate corruption—has gone so thoroughly AWOL that one doubts it will ever be seen again!  It seems to have morphed into a linguistic Schrodinger’s cat:  simultaneously here and not here.

Crazy, huh?

©2018 D.R. Miller



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