Friday, March 05, 2021

'An Important Truth in Few Words'

A word I can never spell correctly without first looking it up is apophthegm. The problem is compounded by a recognized alternative spelling, apothegm. The Oxford English Dictionary explains: 

“The spelling apothegm was the more usual till preference was expressed in Johnson’s Dict. for apophthegm, which is now more frequent in England. Webster adopts apothegm, which Worcester also thinks ‘perhaps best supported by common usage.’”


Somehow, perhaps from Johnson, I learned the preferred English spelling first, even though apothegm is simpler to spell and more closely resembles its pronunciation. Johnson gives a fussily precise definition: “a remarkable saying; a valuable maxim uttered on some sudden occasion.” He makes it sound like an enviable symptom of Tourette’s syndrome. The OED is closer to my understanding: “a terse, pointed saying, embodying an important truth in few words; a pithy or sententious maxim.” Both Johnson and the OED cite Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), also called Vulgar Errours:


“Thus we magnifie the Apothegms or reputed replies of Wisdom, whereof many are to be seen in Laertius, more in Lycosthenes.”


Browne’s point is that we ought not to unquestionably accept the truth of everything expressed by our revered forebears. In the same paragraph he writes: “We applaud many things delivered by the Ancients, which are in themselves but ordinary, and come short of our own Conceptions”-- which is not the same as dismissing a thought simply because it was articulated by someone long ago.


It’s probably significant that apophthegm has so many close synonyms – aphorism, aperçu, adage, epigram, maxim, proverb. People like to hear truth expressed pithily and memorably, often with a twist. For a while, the French specialized in this sort of thing. Think of Pascal, Joubert, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, La Bruyère, Vauvenargues. I remember several years ago reading an attack by some academic hack on aphorisms and the notion that truth can be expressed in a mere handful of words. At the conclusion of his chapter, Browne warns against simple-minded credulity on one side and simple-minded skepticism on the other:


“Having thus totally relinquisht [the ‘Ancients’] in some things, it may not be presumptuous, to examine them in others: but surely most unreasonable to adhere to them in all, as though they were infallible, or could not err in any.”

1 comment:

Faze said...

Even with all the medical writing I've done, I still have to pause and mentally sort out "ophthalmology" before putting it down.

Vauvenargues is a name that is new to me. I'll have to look him up.