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Dictionary definitions of all three are very similar, typically something like:

a pithy observation which contains a general truth

But the wikipedia entries for each are quite different. Are these words largely interchangeable synonyms?

In the wikipedia entry for adage, for example, a proverb is defined as an adage produced from folk wisdom, whereas an aphorism has "not necessarily gained credit through long use, but is distinguished by particular depth or good style".

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I just glanced at the Wikipedia entries, and they don't seem all that different to me. The three terms may be described in different ways; nevertheless, the underlying meanings still seem closely related. I'd have no problem calling them "synonymous," but I'd be wary about calling them "interchangeable synonyms," because words are seldom interchangeable in all contexts (I probably wouldn't talk about the "adages of Solomon," for example.) –  J.R. Jul 1 '12 at 17:38
    
Sounds like general reference to me and I've voted to close for that reason. –  Barrie England Jul 1 '12 at 17:46
    
@J.R. Edited the interchangeable bit. Also included some material from wikipedia that makes a distinction. I have seen others try to distinguish these terms in other ways, for example, that a proverb must have moral content. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 1 '12 at 17:47
    
@z7sgѪ: It's only my 2 cents, but I think your changes have improved the question considerably. –  J.R. Jul 1 '12 at 17:50

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It is common to find different words existing in English to represent a similar idea. It is an essential characteristic of a language with a long history.

To give you some idea: (I have linked the etymologies as well, which could give some idea about the original differences between the words which have deteriorated over time and use.)

Aphorism:

A ‘definition’ or concise statement of a principle in any science (OED)

This is essentially used to refer to a definition in science or any other technical education.

Adage:

A maxim handed down from antiquity (OED)

Any principle bequeathed from the past is an adage.

Proverb:

A short pithy saying in common and recognized use (OED)

A proverb has to be pithy and also common in use.

However we can certainly say that these distinctions in the definition are largely ignored in practical usage. Along with these three words, others like saw, maxim and apothegm could also be used interchangeably. Proverb, adage and maxim are the commonest from what I have encountered.

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I like your answer, but I did want to add that apothegm is hardly a widely-used term (although you're entirely correct about it being highly synonymous). –  J.R. Jul 1 '12 at 17:47
    
@J.R.: Definitely, I have come across saw and apothegm only in crosswords. –  Bravo Jul 1 '12 at 17:48
    
"Old saw" is a fairly common or even clichéd phrase, usually used pejoratively to mean "folk wisdom" Wikipedia –  Andrew Leach Jul 1 '12 at 18:30

Something I noticed reading in Wikipedia that I have not seen mentioned in your posts is that an aphorism is a an "original" statement. That alone seems to help easily distinguish it among the others. Example: Carpe diem... which is original in that we know the author of the statement was Horace from the poem Odes 23 BC. But it is short, concise, memorable, from antiquity, commonly used and understood broadly even though it is still quoted in its original language. It is formal and philosophical, yet practical. I think it could fit all the categories that we have been discussing. What do you think?

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You could say that an aphorism is a perverse or paradoxical proverb; a corrective for experience. Auden says they're an aristocratic genre of writing (Viking Book of Aphorisms). Hollingdale in his introduction to Lichtenberg Aphorims says they’re ‘philosophical,’ while epigrams are not, and they have the impact of the punch line of a joke, For example:

There are truths that go around so dressed up you would take them for lies, but which are pure truths none the less.

The world offers more correction than consolation.

God who winds up our sundials.

Georg Chrisotoph Lichtenberg

A proverb is “a short pithy saying in common use, a concise sentence, which is held to express some truth ascertained by experience or observation and familiar to all.” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Webster’s Second: A proverb is an adage couched usually in homely and vividly concrete phrase; as, “accused (in the phrase of a homely proverb) of being ‘penny-wise and pound-foolish' The Spectator".

"An adage is a saying of long-established authority and universal application," Webster's Second. Shorter Oxford shows "adagial" - maybe similar to "proverbial"? and cites Lady Macbeth, 'And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would” Like the poor cat i’ the adage?'

An apothegm is “a terse, pointed saying embodying an important truth in a few words,” Shorter Oxford; “a terse and sententious aphorism,” Webster’s Second

Liddell & Scott say of the Greek apophthegm, “to speak one’s opinion plainly; metaphorical of vessels when struck.”

A saying "is a brief current or habitual expression of whatever form," Webster’s Second.

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Wikipedia's "Saying" article includes the following brief defintions of the three terms you mention:

Aphorism – A concise definition, notably memorable.
Adage – An aphorism that has gained credibility by virtue of long use.
Proverb – An expression of practical truth or wisdom.

The three words are not interchangeable, in that a given saying might qualify for one or two of the categories but not the others. For example, proverb "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" may also be termed an adage, but does not rise to the level of aphorism.

The most concise statement of differences I've seen is from Wikipedia's "Adage" article:

Some adages are products of folk wisdom that attempt to summarize some of the basic truth; these are generally known as proverbs or bywords. An adage that describes a general rule of conduct is a "maxim". A pithy expression that has not necessarily gained credit through long use, but is distinguished by particular depth or good style is an aphorism, while one distinguished by wit or irony is an epigram.

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I noticed that section already and edited my question! ;) But I think here I am challenging the claims made on wikipedia which lack references and evidence of research. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 1 '12 at 17:53

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