There are many things I love about the English language, including the fact that we have so many words that describe or represent the same things, but with slightly different meanings or nuances.
On the other hand, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. In a crisis, for example, I would be hard-pushed to articulate the differences between an adage (a traditional saying expressing a common experience or observation), an aphorism (a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation), an apophthegm (a short, pithy, instructive saying; a terse remark or aphorism), and a proverb (a simple, concrete, traditional saying that expresses a perceived truth based on common sense or experience).
For example, do you remember my introducing my dear old granddad in The Times They Are a-Changin’ (Part 2)? As I mentioned in that column, if the Guinness Book of Records had been around at that time, my granddad would have been a contender for the “Man who was on the most ships sunk in WWII” record.
Granddad was brought up in extreme poverty. There wasn’t much food around, so he grew up malnourished. I remember him as a kindly, upbeat man who — although slight of build — was wiry and composed mainly of muscle and sinew.
One of granddad’s favorite sayings was, “We’re short of nothing we’ve got,” which he used when we had to make do with something we actually did have, even if it wasn’t ideally suited to the purpose.
I just talked with my mom on the phone. She tells me that my granddad (her dad) also used this saying to make the point that, although you might be short of (without) some things, whatever you have got you’re not short of, so consider yourself lucky to at least have something.
Did you know that the first adhesive tape — Scotch tape — was invented in 1930 by banjo-playing 3M engineer Richard Drew? Well, all I know is that it hadn’t reached us when I was a kid. I remember parcels coming through the post wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
I also remember that, no matter how excited I was to see what was inside the parcel, there was no way on Earth than granddad was going to cut that piece of string with the razor-sharp knife he always kept about his person. It didn’t matter how tight the knots were tied, granddad would happily sit there working away at the little scamps until — possibly hours later — they realized that resistance was futile and succumbed to his will.
In my mind’s eye, I can hear the satisfaction in grandad’s voice after he’d finally unraveled the knot, removed the string from the package, wound it into small clew (using the end to tie a nautical knot that would restrain the ball from unravelling but release it with a tug), and dropped it into a drawer crammed with similar clews exclaiming, “We’re short of nothing we’ve got!”
But now I’m left wondering if this counts as an adage, an aphorism, an apophthegm, or a proverb. This is going to keep me awake at nights. Can you shed any light on the subject? Also, do you have any similar sayings you heard as a kid that you’d care to share?