Fine thread linking concentrated wisdom | Sunday Observer

Fine thread linking concentrated wisdom

Most sensible people have the habit of collecting epigrams, quotations, maxims and proverbs as they are the concentrated human wisdom. They are useful to reinforce our ideas in speech and writing. An epigram is a short sentence that expresses an idea in a clever or amusing way. A quotation, on the other hand, is a sentence or phrase from a book or speech which you repeat because it is interesting or amusing. A maxim is a well-known phrase or saying, especially one that gives a rule for sensible behaviour. A proverb is also a short well-known statement that gives advice or expresses something that is generally true.

There is a common thread running through epigrams, quotations, maxims and proverbs. All of them are clever and amusing statements meant to give us a meaningful piece of advice. However, some people get them wrong due to their level of understanding of a particular epigram, quotation, maxim or proverb. While we can collect them from books and speeches there are many dictionaries or collections of epigrams, quotations, maxims and proverbs. Despite such worthy publications, it is an interesting hobby to collect them as you advance in life.

Edmund Fuller who compiled “Thesaurus of Epigrams”, first published in 1943, says, “To attempt to assemble a broad collection of epigrams, one must make up his mind that they are where you find them and what you want them to be. They overlap with many other classifications of the gnomic, or aphoristic, wisdom of the race and no bones about it. They should be brief, but how short is brief? They should be witty, but where does wit begin and end? They should be paradoxical, but one man’s paradox is another man’s faith. “With an epigram you can supercharge your conversation, speech or writing. It serves as a spear or a shield where it matters.”


You can change certain epigrams to fit the occasion because most of them are paradoxical statements. “An honest man is the noblest work of God” is a well-known epigram. Robert Ingersoll changed it to read “An honest God is the work of man.” However, if you are not sure-footed, never try to change an epigram.

Paul Bourget said, “When an American has nothing else to do he can always spend a few years trying to discover who his grandfather was.” After reading it, Mark Twain retorted, “When all other interests fail for a Frenchman, he can always try to find out who his father was.”

“Money is the root of all evil” is a well-known quotation. It does not mean that you should not earn money and save a part of it in a savings account. The quotation from the Bible does not mean that legal tender is evil, but it is the lust for money that drives people away from virtue. An oft-repeated quotation “Winning isn’t everything” comes from an American University football coach who said, “Men, I’ll be honest … Winning isn’t everything … men, it’s the only thing!” For some unknown reason, we have left out the last portion of the quotation.

We often hear that “Charity covers a multitude of sins.” It is a biblical quotation that means “Charity as a virtue outweighs many faults.” However, Erasmus defines charity in a different way. He says, “What’s charity? A monk’s cloak. Why? Because it covers a multitude of sins.” A similar proverb is “Charity begins at home.” It means that you should look first to needs in your immediate vicinity. An American proverb says, “Charity is not a bone you throw to a dog but a bone you share with a dog.” It means that the recipient of one’s charity should not be treated as an inferior person.


A modern quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” However, Gandhi never used those words. He simply said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” An African proverb says, “When the music changes, so does the dance.” It is a reminder that we need to change with the times.

We often say, “Curiosity killed the cat.” But the original version is “Care killed the cat.” Nobody knows how ‘care’ became ‘curiosity’ in the late 1800s. ‘Care’ meant ‘worry.’

A cat or an anxious person can literally work themselves and fall ill. According to a 16th century saying, “All cats are grey in the dark” is used in a variety of contexts and means that the night obscures all distinguishing features.

When two people agree, they would say, “Great minds think alike.” However, it is used sarcastically because they have left out the last portion of the saying. “…and fools seldom differ.” Another quotation recorded in the 17th century says, “Fools ask questions that wise men cannot answer”. The question, “Which came first, the chick or the egg?” is supposed to be a foolish question.

Motivational parable

When you lose your job, others will advise you by saying, “When one door closes, another opens.” No doubt, it is a motivational parable but we should look at its second half which says, “When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which are open for us.”

All these bring us to the inevitable conclusion that all epigrams, quotations, maxims and proverbs are meant to enrich the language and wisdom. However, they have to be used cautiously.

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