To Sharpen a Vague Phrase, To Make Pithier an Old Maxim

What a skill: to boil down something to its essence, or to sharpen a vague phrase, or to add punch to an otherwise dry paragraph. Ben Franklin had a knack for this, as Walter Isaacson notes in his Franklin biography:

Franklin’s talent was inventing a few new maxims and polishing up a lot of older ones to make them pithier. For example, the old English proverb “Fresh fish and new-come guests smell, but that they are three days old” Franklin made: “Fish and visitors stink in three days.” Likewise, “A muffled cat is no good mouser” became “The cat in gloves catches no mice.” He took the old saying “Many strokes fell great oaks” and gave it a sharper moral edge: “Little strokes fell great oaks.” He also sharpened “Three may keep a secret if two of them are away” into “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” And the Scottish saying that “a listening damsel and a speaking castle shall never end with honor” was turned into “Neither a fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.”

I absolutely love little maxims or proverbs. What are your favorites? Do you have a sharper variation on a common truism?

5 comments on “To Sharpen a Vague Phrase, To Make Pithier an Old Maxim
  • Just as wit can make a person more likeable, it can render an argument more persuasive, maybe because the alternative to agreeing with the speaker is to harden oneself against one’s own pleasurable gut reaction. Maybe, too, there’s a feeling that to truly refute a witty phrase requires an equal and opposite witticism.

    Even when an audience is likely to be uncritical of the speaker’s statements, wit can substitute for detail in building an impression, and make the impression more memorable. Favorite recent examples:

    i) in a New Yorker tribute to Rickey Henderson, his crouched batting stance creates a strike zone “the size of Hitler’s heart”; his ego “made Jose Canseco look like a social worker”.

    ii) Raymond Chandler’s novels are full of hilarious exaggerations to enliven the descriptions of generic LA toughs and dames. In ‘Farewell My Lovely’, Marlowe describes a beautiful woman: “she had a face to make a bishop punch a hole through a stained-glass window.”

    Can’t think of a single maxim off the top of my head, though. I feel as if their power over people’s minds has waned in modern times.

  • My father instilled a very powerful maxim in me that to this day clarifies that taking action is the secret to achieving…vs. sitting around and thinking about it.

    “Wish in one hand. Shit in the other. See which one fills up first boy.”

    Maybe the language gave this added impact as a youth. In any case, this still works for me.

  • In that scatalogical vein, I remember the advice of a real hustler:

    “Don’t shit where you eat.”

    It applies in business as well as life in general.

  • could someone tell me what does the old proverb fresh fish and new come guests smell,but that they are three days old

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