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The Friday Fillip: Going Wilde, as the Saying Goes

J.B.S.Haldane is said to have remarked that one thing we know about the supreme being is that if he exists he has “an inordinate fondness for beetles,” there being more than 350,000 species of them (beetles, that is), with the count still rising. I’m pretty sure — but what do I know? — that it’s we ordinary folk and not any divinity who are inordinately fond of nifty sayings, rather like Haldane’s, because English has so many words for them. Anyone who has wandered thoughtlessly on to Twitter — and too often, alas, even tip-toed with care — has seen how the lure of the 140 character limit tempts otherwise sane people into the sin of retailing wretched gobbets of low-level enlightenment. (Okay, okay. . . . No thanks, I’m fine. Well, maybe a glass of water . . . )

In a less charged proof of my claim that we’re partial to pithy aperçus, I offer you a short list of our many words for them, along with their (interdependent) definitions from the OED:

  • adage – A traditional maxim; a proverb or short statement expressing a general truth.
  • apothegm – A terse, pointed saying, embodying an important truth in few words; a pithy or sententious maxim.
  • aphorism – Any principle or precept expressed in few words; a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import; a maxim.
  • epigram – A pointed or antithetical saying.
  • maxim – A proposition, esp. one which is pithily worded, expressing a general truth drawn from science or experience.
  • proverb – A short, traditional, and pithy saying; a concise sentence, typically metaphorical or alliterative in form, stating a general truth or piece of advice; an adage or maxim.

And because I hate to waste research, I point out that there’s also: gnome, saw, brocard, dictum, quip, witticism . . . and, of course, saying.

The best sayings have bite, with fangs of truth and wit. And no one bit more cleanly than Oscar Wilde. To be sure, others have been more . . . mordant, perhaps (and often NSFW): I’m thinking of Ambrose Bierce and his Devil’s Dictionary — e.g. HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. — and also of the lethal Dorothy Parker — e.g. If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to. But Wilde has held his own down through the decades.

In tribute, the Guardian recently published a special poster cum chart of the master’s quips that I refer you to. This labour of love uses Google data to give you Wilde’s top ten and top 50 most-quoted sayings, each marked with an icon to tell you the source in his writings. (Read the comments to find those of your favourites that aren’t quoted in the chart, likely because they were said ex tempore or aren’t found in a literary work of his. And see the footnotes in the chart to learn the Guardian’s self-imposed limits.)

I want to impel you to pepper yourself with his aperçus by giving you an irresistible example, but it’s damn near impossible to choose among his bons mots — they’re all so good. But more or less at random I offer you this:

A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?

It’s that “What more can one want?” that is the brilliant touch, surely.

As Dorothy Parker said,

If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

because that brilliance has made his name almost synonymous with epigrams, apothegms, saws, sayings . . .

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