What is an Adage?

"Slow and steady wins the race" is a popular adage.
"Slow and steady wins the race" is a popular adage.

An adage is a short philosophical saying that has gained popularity through common and long-term use. Most, if not all adages, are common facts, experiences, and observations that have been crafted into phrases for mimetic use in the vernacular language. Common adages may also use skepticism or moral commentary in order to drive home their point. As they have been in vogue for a very long period of time, it can be assumed that they symbolize the collective thought process and philosophical wisdom of a whole society.

History of Adages

Adages have been common and in wide use since medieval times. It has been commented that Aesop’s Fables may well be the first collection or compilation of adages, even though it does not title itself so. The first collection of adages that exclusively deals with them has been credited to Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch compiler, who published his collection, Adagia, in the sixteenth century. Later on, many other collections were published. During the modern era, adages, savings, and other complimentary items are collected and compiled by the Oxford University Press in a single volume.

Difference Between Adages and Clichés

An adage is differentiated from maxims, aphorism, and epigrams. All clichés and truisms are also adages, however, they are differentiated from their parent term with the fact that clichés are commonly overused and adages are not. A common example of this is the adage “slow and steady wins the race”, which has been turned into “haste makes waste”, which has been further overused to the point of it becoming a worn out expression. It is therefore classified as a cliché.

From Adage to Law

At times, adages that are particular to a situation may be given a proper name and when this occurs, that specific adage is then called a law. A common example of this is the term “Murphy’s Law”, which originated as an adage. But, through continued usage, it evolved into an expression with a proper name, hence a law. Although it is common to give proper names to adages only after they have been in use for a long time, some laws have been named from the time of their formulation in the language. Some adages may become slogans or mantras. This evolution does not require a particular catalyst to occur; rather, it depends on the person, community or the corporate body who is adopting the adage. Examples of such usage are the adoption of “no pain, no gain” by modern-day bodybuilders and other athletes as their mantra.

Function of Adages

Although the most common function of adages in the past was to teach and instruct others about the most common philosophical observations of past generations, their use in literature has elevated the common adage. These are now commonly used in high literature, speeches, and formal conversations. Their adoption by corporations and community organizations has helped them find their way into mainstream pop culture. For example, the Scouts have adopted the adage “Be prepared”, while the Armed Forces of the United States of America have adopted “Be all that you can be” as their motto.


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