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A distinction without a difference

Posted by Ward on August 16, 2004

In Reply to: Re: Difference between idioms, proverbs and metaphors posted by ESC on August 16, 2004

: : : I am an Indian, and English is my second language. Inspite of tossing a few odd ones every now and then in my writing as well as in speech, I must admit I sometimes do wonder about the difference. This is like one of those obvious amenities, taken for granted in any sphere of knowledge to be implicitly understood, those that we use overly, but do not so fully claim knowing over their technicalities. So I ask, what's the difference between idioms, proverbs and metaphors?

: : : NOTE: Remove the NO_SPAM from the email address specified above.

: : proverb - is a saying that makes a truth or piece of wisdom easier to remember e.g. a stitch in time saves nine (minor preventative action is less trouble than disaster-recovery) or 'many a true word spoken in jest' (take care as to what you say, it can reveal more than you may wish)

: : idiom - is a regularly used form of words, particular in some way - either to an individual or a group. it can form a style of communication.

: : metaphor - this is where some aspect of the real world is used to describe something similar. it often only relates to some facet(s) on the comparison. it involves describing the subject as the comparison, rather than comparing them using 'as' or 'like'. some metaphors have become so familiar that they have passed into speech as the description of something used without people even realising that they are using a metaphor - I don't know if there is a special word for these 'hidden' metaphors - somebody more educated than I will doubtless advise.
: : L

: Here's an entry I posted a while back about proverbs and such:
: : : The main part of this entry is from "When is a Pig a Hog?: A Guide to Confoundingly Related English Words" by Bernice Randall (Galahad Books, New York, 1991). The additional information in parenthesis and the two items at the end are from "What's the Difference? A Compendium of Commonly Confused and Misused Words" by Jeff Rovin (Ballantine Books, New York, 1994).

: : : "Saying/proverb -- A SAYING is the simple, direct term for any pithy expression of wisdom or truth. For instance, one might comment on 'the sayings of Chairman Mao' or observe that a cynical friend 'knows the price of everything and, as the saying goes, the value of nothing.' Several other words are often used in place of saying, yet shades of meaning set them somewhat apart.

: : : An ADAGE is a SAYING that has been popularly accepted over a long period of time. For example: 'Where there's smoke, there's fire.'

: : : An APHORISM is a terse SAYING that embodies a general, more or less profound truth or principle. For example: 'If you came unbidden you depart unthanked.' (".short, pithy, instructive saying." Like "there's more than one way to skin a cat.")

: : : An EPIGRAM is a terse, witty, pointed statement that often has a clever twist of thought. For example: 'The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.' This is not the same as an epigraph, which is either an inscription on a monument or building or a brief quotation placed at the beginning of a book or chapter to suggest its theme.

: : : A MAXIM is a general principle drawn from practical experience and serving as a rule of conduct. For example: 'Practice what you preach.' (".self-righteous or moralistic APHORISM; for example: 'Man is the measure of all things.'")

: : : A MOTTO is a MAXIM accepted as a guiding principle or as an ideal of behavior. For example: 'Honesty is the best policy.' (".an expression that embodies the philosophy of a person or group, such as, 'People are our most important business.")

: : : A PROVERB is a piece of practical wisdom expressed in homely, concrete terms. For example: 'A closed mouth catches no flies.' (PROVERB ".synonymous with an

: : : ADAGE - is a short, popular saying that expresses a truth or insight; for example, 'a word to the wise is sufficient.")

: : : A SAW is an old homely SAYING that is well worn by repetition. For example: 'A stitch in time saves nine.'" (.an extremely quaint PROVERB, such as, 'You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think.'")"

: : : An IDIOM is an expression whose meaning can't be derived simply by hearing it, such as 'Kick the bucket.'"

: : : Mr. Rovin's book lists two additional terms:
: : : "An APOTHEGM is an edgy, more cynical APHORISM; such as, 'Men are generally more careful of the breed of their horses and dogs than of their children.'

My, we do make this language into a monster. The number of different definitions above is remarkable. In philosophy, nuance is often celebrated, but in everyday English, I wonder how many real differences exist in the way people really speak about these things. Wittgenstein would have a party with this one!