So, what-in-the-world is an Aphorism anyway?

When I first decided to write my book, The Wisdom Within Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan: The Original Aphorisms Inside The Charlie Chan Canon, I pondered that very question for quite some time.  The book (in its final stages) is a collection of 175 aphorisms inside the six Charlie Chan novels by Ohio author and playwright Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police.  Biggers’ detective was among the first of America’s emerging characters in mystery fiction, to challenge the British sleuths following the period known as the golden age of detective fiction (between WWI & WWII.)  And one peculiarity—so unique to him alone—stands out: his use of aphorisms.  So peculiar it helped earn him the distinction of America’s most famous detective of his time.

So, as I started to gather these tidbits of wisdom from within the novels (what seems a lifetime ago), I was jotting down every piece of flowery prose I came across.  I began with this simple definition from Marriam-Webster’s dictionary:  APHORISM. A concise statement of a principle; a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment.  But soon, as I went along collecting them, something occurred to me.  I recognized some of these as belonging to other parts of speech!  And soon I found much of what I’d collected might actually fall within the definition of some other literary device, say: an adage, analogy, axiom, euphemism, idiom, metaphor, platitude, proverb, or simile.  If you are already confused, then try looking up the definition of each to tell them apart—your head will really swim!  Let me just say, in many cases they are quite similar and tough to differentiate.  Here are a few examples of those I mentioned:

It has been said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (adage)

It is well known that supply equals demand. (Axiom).

Who was it said, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness? (epigram)

After a lengthy illness fate decreed that he kick-the-bucket (idiom).

Although drowning in money, she was still unhappy. (Metaphor)

He could not wait another moment, like a cat on a hot tin roof. (Simile)

Even the fool knows absence makes the heart grow fonder (Proverb)

Now, really baffled I needed professional help.  I won’t bore you with my research, but in the end I came upon the WAO-World Aphorism Association.  Then, after perusing around their website I found one of the members, Mr. James Geary, and contacted him.  Mr. Geary has been passionate about aphorisms since the age of eight and began collecting them at the age of 13 years old.  He is a world-renowned speaker on various forms of speech and has written numerous books about language to include the aphorism.  The following is an excerpt from his book, The World in a Phrase: The Brief History of The Aphorism (2005).  It is a small sampling of his many thoughts surrounding this unique form of speech:

“Aphorisms are like particle accelerators for the mind.  When high-energy particles like electrons and positrons collide inside an accelerator, new particles are created as the energy of the crash is converted into matter. The fresh minted matter spins out from the collision at incredibly high velocities and disintegrates again within about one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second.  Trying to track the particles in this miniature big bang is like blowing up a haystack and trying to spot a needle as the debris flies by.  Inside an aphorism, it is minds that collide and the new matter that spins out at the speed of thought is that elusive thing we call wisdom.  Keep your eyes peeled or you’ll miss it.”

Deep, yes!  Well, along with his many analogies on aphorism, Mr. Geary has developed what he calls “The Five Laws of an Aphorism.”  Sorry, I promised him I wouldn’t give those away (you’ll have to read his book).  So, armed with these five laws I proceeded to review what I had already collected.  Then, to my dismay, I ended up eliminating a sizable chuck of what I had!  And after weeding out those other parts of speech, I was left with a total 175 separate aphorisms.

OK, are you still with me?  Sorry to keep you waiting, but you know what they say, “the joy is in the journey, not the destination!”  (Ahem) right!  So then, just what does separate the aphorism from all other parts of speech?  Without giving away Mr. Geary’s five laws, perhaps the easiest way to explain is by looking at a few.  Reflect a moment on this: Don’t believe everything you think.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Now think more deeply.  Not everything “you see,” and not everything “you hear, smell, feel, or even believe”; but everything “YOU THINK!  How about this one: It has been well said, those who live too conspicuously tempt the notice of fate.  Hmm, ponder that a moment.  Notice anything about these?  Was there a slight internal nod of recognition?  Did they give you pause and make you think a bit?  Maybe recognize something you’ve always comprehended, but never completely grasped until hearing it aloud?  That is what is so special about aphorisms: they bring to light universal truths in the briefest form.  Here are a few of my favorites from each novel.  Think about them closely:

There’s trouble waiting for us all, if we look far enough ahead. (Madame Maynard; The House Without a Key, 1925, Chapter 5)

He who rides on tiger can not dismount. (Charlie Chan; The Chinese Parrot, 1926, Chapter 9)

Men stumble over pebbles, never over mountains. (Charlie Chan; Behind That Curtain, 1928, Chapter 5)

The man who looks back sees his mistakes piled up behind him. (Charlie Chan; The Black Camel, 1929, Chapter 24)

The ignorant are never defeated in argument. (Charlie Chan; Charlie Chan Carries On, 1930, Chapter 18)

Critics are sheep–they never lead.  They follow. (Luis Romano; Keeper of The Keys, 1932, Chapter 10)

So, an aphorism is a short concise revelation of the truth.  It “pings” our brain when first heard, and it acts as a guide or rule-of-thumb for us to follow as we stumble along through life.  That’s what differentiates it from all other speech.  Earl Derr Biggers was obviously a student of philosophy.  And he often borrowed from the great sages and philosophers of history: Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, Plato, and the I Ching in laying down his wisdom through the voice of Charlie Chan.  He strategically placed his bits of wisdom, throughout his prose, to bring insight and meaning.  Hollywood, on the other hand, went in another direction.  Hollywood scriptwriters wrote their own sayings, or rewrote Biggers’ words, turning them into fortune-cookie wisdom and eventually comedic relief.  And that is quite the opposite of what Biggers was trying to do–to portray the Chinese as a wise, intelligent, people and nation.  And in 500 or more Chan quotes found throughout the films, only two of Biggers’ original aphorisms were kept intact!

And that is why I wrote my book.  To set the record straight and “finally” identify The Wisdom Within Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan: The Original Aphorisms Inside The Charlie Chan Canon.  “And that’s all I’ll say about that.” (Forrest Gump, 1994)

– Now the hard part…finding a publisher for my book!


One thought on “So, what-in-the-world is an Aphorism anyway?

  1. So happy to learn about this. I think EDB was ahead of his time in creating meaningful characters that go beyond gender and racial prejudice. As a mystery writer I also read his rather poor first attempt at a novel and felt heartened to see his progress in his later work.

    Liked by 1 person

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