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?

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