The Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo

By James Geary

Here is an appreciation written by James Geary, anthologist and specialist in aphoristic expression, posted on his website on April 18, 2007.

I thought I had a serious aphorism addiction problem, until I came across the work of Canadian author and anthologist John Robert Colombo. He has compiled such books as The Penguin Dictionary of Popular Canadian Quotations (2006), Colombo’s All-Time Great Canadian Quotations (1994), and The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations (1991), among others. In Canada, he has been called John “Bartlett” Colombo for his quotation collecting abilities. He is also something of a theorist of the aphorism. In the prefaces to books of his own aphorisms, he has defined the aphorism as “the expression, composed in a stylish yet concise manner, of a notion as well as an emotion.” Like me, he also believes aphorisms are the oldest form of literature on the planet: “It is often said,‘The oldest things in the world are poetry and pottery.’ To these two survivals may be added a third: the aphorisms of the ancients. Whether ancient or avant-garde, aphorisms have served as the guide of Everyman through the ages.” He has even coined an incredibly apt term for the aphorism, one that captures the grand sweep these sayings have had since antiquity with the modern penchant for brevity in communication: aphorisms, he says, are “epicgrams.” Colombo is a prolific aphorist himself. A small selection from All the Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo, a collection of 3,000 + sayings: “In politics, an alliance is a dalliance.” “Light travels faster than sound; people appear bright until you hear them speak.” “Belief systems are essentially relief systems.” “Every builder knows that you must excavate (dig down) to elevate (raise up).” “If you want to say something badly enough, you will say it badly enough.” “A woman wants a man to perform an involuntary act. A man wants a woman to perform a voluntary act.”

To learn about James Geary and his mission, which is to draw attention to the world’s greatest aphorists and aphorisms, visit his website:


Aphorisms Matter

This is the preface to a forthcoming collection of my own aphorisms. The collection is currently titled Indifferences. The preface begins at the beginning.

All the Aphorisms of John Robert Colombo is the generous title of a handsome, 318-page volume which appeared in 2006. It was a grand collection, if I do say so myself! The text of that collection consists of close to 3,500 aphorisms that I once described in a somewhat irrelevant manner as “Attic observations and Spartan commentaries.” That collection is really a compilation, for its contents consist of the texts of six, book-length collections, volumes originally issued between the years 1996 and 2006. I arranged the remarks in alphabetical order under headings which range from “Abatement” (a favourite word) to “Zero” (a recurring word nowadays).

Since the early 1960s, the hoard of aphoristic expressions has been expanding – slowly at first, then speedily. So those aphorisms became part of a “retrospective exhibition,” unlike the contents of the present collection. Indifferences, it should be realized, consists of current creations. These are the products – the by-products, really – of the years 2007 and 2008. Hence Indifferences is no rival in size to All, but perchance its items are as engrossing as those included in the six earlier collections.

It should be apparent to the reader that in my lexicon the word “aphorism” is an Indian-rubber term. Rather than limit the word’s meaning to “a short pithy maxim” (the sole definition for “aphorism” in The Little Oxford Dictionary), the word’s expanded definition has been extended to represent all forms of contemporary usage: from a fact or a factoid (at the infrared end of the spectrum) to an impression or an inspiration (at the ultraviolet end) with, between them, commonplace observations and eccentric expressions of opinions (all the colours of the rainbow).

In December of 2007 the search engine Google announced the existence of a new word. That word is “knol,” which they devised and designated to refer to any item of information. It is a useful term, presumably an abbreviation of the longer word “knowledge.” (It is catchy but I doubt that it will catch on to the extent that Google hopes it will.) In effect, some of the nuggets of information in the present collection are “knols.” Other nuggets here are decidedly non-aphoristic, being closer to pensées or “considerations” than to aphorisms proper.

The eloquence of the aphorism has always appealed to me. I am aware that aphoristic expressions may enrobe themselves by assuming the mantle of a gnomic expression, a mystagogic utterance so to speak, or dress down like a stereotypical remark or a stock response. Yet I see the aphorism as the present-day incarnation of the proverb, serving the same function as did the proverbial lore and folk expression of yesteryear. It is also the equivalent of the “quotable quote.” Whether topical or not, whether concerned with theme or topic, there is a timeless turn to such gnomic expressions, for condensation implies an inarguable arbitrariness. The soul of the aphorism resides close to the spirit of the oracle, perhaps in the way the ant brings to mind the giant. The evocative sentences and sentence-fragments of “wisdom literature” are presented in a stark, aphoristic manner.

The Gospels are less four narratives than they are the settings for pericopes: short, pithy sayings or settings for adages. In our day and age, items of intelligence, odd bits of information, may pass for aphoristic expressions. As Northrop Frye explained in Fearful Symmetry:

The difference between the platitude and the aphorism, hinted at earlier, is that the platitude involves no disturbance of a commonplace standard value. A platitude may be true, even universally true; but it would not occur to us to call it profoundly true. We do not call a statement profound unless we are pleased with its wit.

Writing in “Notebook 3″ (1946-48), he commented on the art or artistry of these verbal formulations:

When art becomes obscure it has forgotten the fact that the reason for avoiding the commonplace is to discover the obvious. There can be no such things as the revelation of a mystery, and everyone knows that perfect simplicity is the only way of expressing complex and original ideas.

Whether platitude or commonplace, whether art or Wisdom Literature, the aphorism fills a space, albeit a tiny one, in the world of words and in the mind of mankind.

For further thoughts on these and other related matters, see the prefaces to the six volumes mentioned earlier: Uncommon Knowledge (1996), Semi-Certainties (1998), Open Secrets (2000), Briefs (2001), Personal Effects (2003), and A Is for Aphorism (2006). For convenience, they are reprinted in All the Aphorisms (2006).

A modern-day collector and aficionado of the aphorism is James Geary. I like his list of the aphorism’s five characteristics. Here they are:

It must be brief.

It must be definitive.

It must be personal.

It must be philosophical.

It must have a twist.

I could expatiate on these features but in the interests of brevity will forego doing so. Instead I will suggest that the principal difference between an aphorism and a proverb – both being expressions – is that while the aphorism is personal, the proverb is impersonal. The former is the handiwork of a writer (it is a commonplace to ascribe aphorisms to Will Rogers Jr., H.L. Mencken, Stephen Leacock, etc.), whereas the latter is anonymous like folklore, the distillation of centuries of living. Other than for “personal,” they share the features of brevity, comprehensiveness, theory, and surprise.

The title of the present collection presses into service a word that is meaningful though it is more familiar in the singular than in the plural. I believe that “indifferences” epitomizes the single essential characteristic of the aphorism and the proverb: indifference. Each aphorism, like each proverb, is unique; it is at once an oracle and an orphan; it exists indifferent to and independent of any other expression of sentiment, opinion, intelligence, or insight. Each aphorism basks in “splendid isolation” and admits of the existence of no other aphorism. Thus an aphorism has the authority of an Imam or a Pope, neither of whom recognizes the authority of the other.

One of my favourite people was the late Robert L. Ripley, newspaperman and cartoonist. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is the title of his first and best book, and in it he has a list of “contradictory proverbs.” This is an admonition to readers to beware of using proverbs as maxims because, collectively, the advice or the insight they give is contradictory; the same warning stands with respect to aphorisms. We are dealing here with “half-truths.” They are models, perhaps, but they are not meant to be mentors, or guides to action and behaviour.

In the conventional words of the legal oath, Each one “is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” So here are close to 2,000 “truths.”

February 2008

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