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about sayings

The English word say means to utter or speak. It devolves from the Old Norse word saga, which is akin to the word say.

A saying is something that is said; it expresses a complete idea. But to qualify as a saying, what's said can't be just any nonsense dribbled from the mouth; it must something that expresses an idea and makes a point, such as a proverb, apothegm, maxim, adage, saw, epigram, or aphorism, bon mot, or any one of a number of other kinds of expression. And of course, to qualify as a saying, what's said doesn't have to literally be spoken aloud; it can be written on paper, carved in stone, posted on a billboard, displayed on a TV, spray painted on a wall of graffiti...you get the point.

Sayings are specific to a particular country, culture, and language. Some are specific to a subculture, social group, or industry. For instance, most sayings that arise in France or Germany appear in the publications and speech of Frenchmen or Germans, not in those of Libya or Cape Town. The bulk of sayings that arise among union members or scientists appear in union meetings and scientific journals and lectures, not in baking or sewing circles.

Sayings run the gamut of emotion from dead serious to hilarious, from dead pan to spiritual. They rouse and stir or leave you flat.

We live in a sea of sayings; they're all around us. Virtually every country, culture, and language has them, thousands of them. Sometimes we tend to tune them out because they're ubiquitous and in constant use by speakers, writers, on signs, and in media. Yet, ironically, it's partly because we tend to tune them out that they exert so potent an impact. Sayings are important in a negative sense because what they have to say is drummed into us when we're looking the other way, a time when we're least able to defend ourselves by thinking critically about what a saying proposes or observes.

In a positive sense, sayings are important partly because what they have to say is often worth knowing, following, or guarding against. Here, too, there is irony. The time we hear a saying is sometimes precisely the time when we should be (but aren't) listening, learning, and analyzing.

For whatever reasons, sayings are important. Don't underrate them.

What there is to say about a saying

Of course, the idea expressed by a saying is the most important thing there is to say about it; the idea it puts forward is the reason for its existence, the rationale for why it was devised in the first place, and the purpose for its use whenever it's invoked.

For many sayings it's also important to discuss how the saying employs language to express its idea—that is, the way it uses words and phrases. Twists on words, figures of speech such as metaphors or similes, allusions, exaggeration, etc.—these and many other linguistic devices can add to or alter meanings considerably.

Thus, besides a saying's meaning, also worthy of discussion is its philology.

Philology is the study of literary texts and written records; it's the establishment of the authenticity of words and their original form and the determination of their meaning.

The science and art of philology includes the study of cultural, political, social and geographical origins of languages or words. It encompasses the history of changes in the meaning of languages or words and the manner of their expression. It's the study of language and word development and the reasons for their creation or change.

From a practical perspective, philology is the study and analysis of how languages or words develop. It's the study of literature and of other disciplines relevant to literature and language as they are used in literature. It's also linguistics, especially historical and comparative linguistics, including human speech, especially speech as a vehicle of literature. And from the perspective of another discipline, it's a field of history that sheds light on cultural history.

The Muse Of Language Arts and The Muse Of Literature take into account all these aspects of a saying when they present it.




Please note that discussions of sayings presented by Electricka's Muses are not exhaustive. They present only those aspects of a saying the Muse's consider most interesting and rewarding for Electricka's visitors.

If you wish to explore a saying further, the Muses suggest that you consult philological authorities.

kinds of sayings

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So, what's a saying?

Classified by a certain ETAF staff member (who shall remain anonymous), there are four kinds of sayings (temporally speaking):

  • Old sayings are sayings that have been around for a while, some a very long while.
  • New sayings are sayings that have recently poked their heads above the surface for air.
  • New old sayings are newly invented sayings that are variations on old sayings.
  • Old new sayings are new sayings that will age and become old sayings because they are too good to let pass into oblivion. (Who can tell?).


  • Old Sayings
    • Ars Gratia Artis — Art for Art's Sake.
    • Why ask why?
    • Everything in moderation.
  • New Sayings
    • So's your old man.
  • New Old Sayings
    • Everything in moderation, including moderation.
    • Why shouldn't I ask why?
  • Old New Sayings
    • So's your mother.

As The Muse Of Language Arts uses the term here, the word saying is a catchall. Actually, for the purposes of this feature The Muse has chosen to include many different kinds of expressions under the rubric saying. The Muse considers these kinds of expressions to be sayings:

  • Proverb—a short popular saying, usually of unknown and ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth or useful thought.
  • Apothegm—a short, pithy, instructive saying; a terse remark or aphorism.
  • Expression—a particular word, phrase, or form of words.
  • Adage—a traditional saying expressing a common experience or observation; proverb.
  • Saw—a sententious saying; maxim; proverb. Derived from the word saga, which is akin to say.
  • Clich้—a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.
  • Maxim—an expression of a general truth or principle, esp. an aphoristic or sententious one:
  • Bon Mot—French for a a witty remark or comment; clever saying; witticism. Not every aphorism or slogan is a bon mot because not every aphorism or slogan is witty. We ignore these facts.
  • Epithet—A word or phrase applied to a person or thing to describe an actual or attributed quality. A characterizing word or phrase firmly associated with a person or thing and often used in place of an actual name, title, or the like. A word, phrase, or expression used invectively as a term of abuse or contempt, to express hostility or another emotion.
  • Epigram—A short, witty poem expressing a single thought or observation. A concise, clever, often paradoxical statement.
  • Aphorism—A succinct, memorable statement of a truth. Not every slogan is an aphorism. In fact, many slogans are not aphorisms because they do not express a truth or because they purport to express a truth but are false.
  • Slogan—A saying that expresses the aims or nature of an enterprise, an organization, or a candidate for office; or it can be a motto, a phrase used repeatedly, as in advertising or promotion. A slogan may be an inscription on or attached to an object that is relevant to the object, such as a ring or charm bracelet bearing the inscription Forever or Til death us do part. It may express a principle, a goal, or an ideal.
  • Graffiti—In archeology, an ancient drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface. In everyday use, markings, as initials, slogans, or drawings, written, spray-painted, or sketched on a sidewalk, wall of a building or public restroom, or the like. Plural of graffito.
  • Rubric—A class or category, title, name, or heading, that is distinguished from the rest of the text of a manuscript. By extension, anything that distinguishes a class of things.
  • Idiom—A speech form or expression that's peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its constituent elements, as in keep a lid on it, or keep tabs on it. The expression may have meaningfully arose out of a context that once made sense, but this rationalizing context may now be unknown or incompatible with its current usage. A construction or expression of one language whose parts correspond to elements in another language but whose total structure or meaning is not matched in the same way in the second language.
  • Shibboleth—A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause, a catchword, a commonplace saying or idea, a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth, a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons from another.
  • Motto—a maxim adopted as an expression of the guiding principle of a person, organization, city, etc. A sentence, phrase, or word expressing the spirit or purpose of such an agency, often inscribed on a badge, banner, or elsewhere.
  • Tag Line—a phrase or catchword that becomes identified or associated with a person such as a politician or entertainer, group, product, etc., through repetition.
  • Gnome—a short, pithy saying of a general truth.
  • Platitude—A flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were fresh or profound.
  • Truism—A self-evident, obvious truth.
  • Many, Many, More—the list of language elements that The Muse lumps into the category of slogan just goes on and on—opinions, dicta, declarations, quips... You name it.

You may be able to think of other kinds of sayings, but The Muse is exhausted and will stop here.

A rose by any other name

According to Gertrude Stein, a rose is a rose is a rose.

It turns out that Gertrude's poetic saying about roses applies to other kinds of sayings, as well. That's because many sayings appear in more than one form.

How can that happen?

Different versions of the same saying may develop for a multiplicity of reasons. Sometimes alternate dialects or languages employ different turns of phrase to express the same or a similar idea. Sometimes a saying may be framed with alternate but linguistically equivalent pronouns, such as by substituting he for she; or in other cases, alternative grammatical structures may express equivalent ideas.

The Muse could cite many additional reasons for how a given saying can masquerade under different phrasings, but that's a subject for another day. Here it's unnecessary to go into how different versions arise. No matter how such alternative sayings exist for a given saying, so long as they convey the same basic idea—so long as equivalent sayings convey the same clever thought twist and make the same assertions—The Muse treats them all as virtually equivalent, as if they are essentially the same saying; it doesn't matter if different versions express themselves in slightly different ways.

Consider the saying, You took the words right out of my mouth.  Next consider the saying, She took the words right out of my mouth. Is there any fundamental difference? So long as different sayings like these express the same idea in fundamentally the same way, The Muse treats them as if they are the same because they amount to the same thing. If a saying is a proverb, its counterpart is a proverb; if a saying is a shibboleth, its counterpart is a shibboleth. Consequently, The Muse provides only one version for a saying, even if in practice it shows up sporting different clothes.

For comparison, consider the saying, You read my mind. Now contrast the saying, You took the words right out of my mouth. Changing mouth to mind results in a big difference. Both sayings involve somewhat similar situations—one person detecting another's trend of thought—but the phrasing and associated concepts are quite different.

Groping for a way to apply The Muse's sayings to your situation? The Muse leaves it up to you to adapt The Muse's version of a saying to your particular uses or circumstances. That's fair because a person using a saying that comes in multiple versions can readily decide for himself on the exact wording that best fits the situation or context at hand.

the shapes of sayings

As previously noted, many sayings come in more than one version or flavor. For example, from a technical point of view the saying Lock the barn door after the horse has bolted can be expressed equally well as Lock the barn door after the horse bolts.

There's no essential difference between the meaning or expression of these two versions even though their wording differs slightly. The Muse identifies sayings like these by asserting that the alternate versions have the same shape. They have the same shape because they say the same thing, employ similar words, and have parallel word construction.

In many cases, different versions of a given saying vary only in details, not in substance or type of impact. When they vary, it's usually because of linguistic options made possible by semantic or inflection alternatives. For example, the following versions all have a shape that is the same as Lock the barn door after the horse has bolted:

  • Lock the barn door after the horse has raced out. (action words)
  • Lock the barn door after the horse bolts. (tense and verb)
  • Lock the corral after the horse has bolted. (substantive)
  • Lock the barn door after the horses have bolted. (plurality)

Linguistic transformations like these can generate different but equivalent versions of a saying, all with the same or similar shape. Transformations like these result from choice of word order, pronoun selection, subject, grammatical construction, and many other factors.

As with a joke, the exact wording of a saying can have a major impact on its punch or novelty. This is true whether or not it generates a significant change in shape. For example, in The Muse's opinion, the expression I've come too far to turn back now is zippier-sounding than the expression Since I've come this far, I'm not going to return. Even though they're technically equivalent, the first version makes much more of an impact.

Obviously, the shape of a saying can have an enormous impact on its catchiness. Word transformations like these frequently are the kinds of things that make the difference between a saying and a plain old sentence. Lock the barn door after the horse has bolted has a lot more emotional force and appeal than Lock the barn door after the horse has raced out. Duh.

Some sayings are plain old sentences. But the vast majority of sayings are memorable because of the clever and catchy ways they are phrased; they would not be sayings if they didn't possess a verbal and mental twist that gives them life.

about quasi sayings

Did you read the section called Kinds Of Sayings, above on this page? The Muse Of Language Arts also defines another kind of saying, namely a quasi saying.

A quasi saying is a special sort of saying; it's any expression that can pass for a saying, including new sayings, old new sayings, variations on old sayings, and other such kin. No formally trained linguist would recognize the term, but it comes in handy nonetheless.

By this reckoning, the title of Francis Ford Coppola's movie, Apocalypse Now, is a quasi saying, even though it's only a title, and even though it doesn't exactly match any of the different kinds of sayings listed above in the Kinds Of Sayings section. Why? Because Apocalypse Now is an observation; it's an expression (something said) whose meaning is self-evident that's well understood.

In the rare event that different optional wordings such as Apocalypse Now significantly alter a saying's meaning or message, or if they possess more or less punch or overtone, The Muse will so indicate.

Are sayings expressions? are sayings parts of speech?

An expression is a particular word, phrase, or form of words; it's the manner or form in which a thing is expressed in words; a particular wording or phrasing. A part of speech is a grammatical class into which words in some languages have traditionally been divided on the basis of their meaning, form, or syntactic function. A saying is something catchy and well-expressed, or it may be just a common phrase that is neither catchy nor well-expressed.

about sayings and Expressions

As noted above, an expression is a particular word, phrase, or form of words; it's the manner or form in which a thing or idea is expressed in words; it's a particular wording or phrasing.

All sayings are expressions. They may or may not be catchy or well-expressed, but every saying takes the form of a particular word, phrase, or form of words, no matter how it's put together.

about sayings and Parts of speech

A part of speech is a grammatical class into which words in some languages, as Latin and English, have traditionally been divided on the basis of their meaning, form, or syntactic function. In English, grammarians have identified eight parts of speech: pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.

A saying is a particular expression or something said, especially if it's a phrasing that is catchy and well-expressed, such as a proverb, apothegm, maxim, adage, saw, or aphorism.

But some sayings may not entirely consist of or contain a part of speech; they may simply be expressions or phrasings that are recognized and understood by a group that speaks a given language. Many sayings do not contain a single part of speech.


  • A given saying may contain no words that are parts of speech.
  • A given saying may consist solely of words that are parts of of speech.
  • A given saying may consist of words that are parts of speech plus other words that are not parts of speech.
  • A given saying may contain more than one part of speech.
  • The different parts of speech in a single saying may consist of different parts of speech.

In English, for example, some sayings contain an idiom, interjection, form, or syntactic function; some sayings may consist only of idioms, interjections, forms, or syntactic functions.

Thus, a given saying may or may not contain parts of speech. But the fact that a given saying contains words that are parts of speech does not by itself make it a part of speech. All sayings are simply words expressing catchy or banal things that are commonly said: they are not themselves parts of speech. In fact, they may even consist of common, boring arbitrary phrases.


Of course, not all popular and well-known expressions are sayings. One important part of speech that may or may not be a saying is an idiom. An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics, such as kick the bucket or hang one's head or keep a lid on it. Another kind of idiom is one that is not predictable from the general grammatical rules of a language, such as the table round for the round table.

Some idioms are sayings, others are not. Keep a lid on it, for example, is a saying; on the other hand, Table round is an idiom that's not a saying.

The key to understanding the essential difference between a saying and an idiom is to keep in mind that a saying must be a popular and well-known statement or assertion or observation about something expressed; it's a complete thought or idea. But an idiom can simply be a popular and well-known expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings or its constituent elements; it does not have to be a complete thought.

Thus, table round is an idiom because it's an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the general grammatical rules of the English language; but it's not a saying because it makes no assertion and expresses no complete observation. By contrast, keep a lid on it is both a saying and an idiom. It's a saying because it's a well-known complete thought or idea (in this case, a command) that's expressed by an idiom.

These examples illustrate that a saying is not a part of speech, even though in some cases a saying can contain a part of speech, and further, that a part of speech can be a saying.

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