Not long ago, I had an exchange with an attorney who corrected my use of the words tactics and strategy. I replied his distinction was without a difference and pointed out the English Oxford Dictionary (OED) recognized the words as synonyms. Lawyerly language, as my attorney friend knows, is offensive to me because it assigns narrow meanings to words no ordinary person would consider reasonable. If there is any joy in language, it lies in its richness and its freedom to change and grow like a snowball and even to contradict itself. Buckle means not only to connect but also to collapse, for example. A poet rejoices in this richness A lawyer sours when confronted by it. Intellectuals can be equally troublesome when they parse language to an undesirable refinement, like ladies who sip tea with their pinkies raised.
I came upon a fine example this refinement the other day in an essay by Rachel Syme. She drew a distinction between an aphorism and an adage. While admitting one was a cousin to the other — whatever that means — she defines an aphorism as “a pithy observation that contains a general truth.” (“The Big Short,” by Rachel Syme, New Republic, March 2017, pg. 65.) Naturally, I ran to my dictionary, like a person in want of a brain, only to discover the OED makes no distinction between the words, seeing them as neither first or second cousins but as synonyms. I would agree with Syme’s observation that the name of the author who pens an aphorisms often remains attached to it. One would have to be bone drunk and sitting inside a ticking Cuckoo clock, for example, to refrain from thinking, “Shakespeare” at the sounding of the words, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Adages differ in that, like folklore, they pass down through generations with no author in mind.
Symes ruminates about aphorisms as part of her review of a new book, 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. In 90 pages, the author boils down her life into a series of terse expressions: “Worry is impatience for the next horror”; “I fret about my lost scarf. Then I miss my flight. The scarf is no longer a problem”; “Happiness begins to deteriorate once it is named.”
Manguso’s aphorisms are sharp, like tweets penned with a dagger. Her ability to sum up her existence in tight terms would be less entertaining if those observations were particular to her, rather than universal. But they are universal which makes them interesting far beyond much of the lint that floats around the internet. Lint is what Syme brilliantly describes the excess verbiage to be found in places like social media. After the rants, diatribes and the tweets to which we are exposed, she points out Manguso is a writer who stabs truth through the heart while paying homage to Robert Browning’s aphorism, “Less is More.”
Brevity in writing is a skill I admire and Syme’s essay is timely. I’ve written a memoir of 140 pages about my four years abroad. That’s small for a book. Should I pad the pages? Or should I heed the wisdom of the poet? I’ve decided to side with Browning. A serious writer knows when to quit.