Guide to Literary Terms

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Are the literary terms "epigram" and "aphorism" synonymous with each other? If not, can someone explain the differences?

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Llewellyn Kassulke eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are certainly some similarities between epigrams and aphorisms. Before we discuss the differences, let's define the terms themselves.

First, an epigram is a witty and often sarcastic statement conveying an observation about life. An epigram is also usually humorous in nature and very memorable. People may invoke powerful epigrams during speeches or even in conversation. As a rule, epigrams can be found in both poems and works of prose. Interestingly, epigrams can take many forms. They can be one-sentence statements or even take up the space of a whole poem. Here's a short list of John Donne's epigrams.

Next, an aphorism is usually a short statement pronouncing an important truth. Here's an example of an aphorism:

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. (Oscar Wilde)

While both epigrams and aphorisms reveal an important truth, aphorisms can only be found in works of prose. Meanwhile, epigrams can be found in both poetry and prose.

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ms-einstein eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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What a great question! These two words often are used interchangably, but they do mean different things. Confusion arises because the two words are related in meaning. They both reflect some truth about life.

An aphorism is a short, witty statement that usually reflects some truth about life. "The darkest hour comes before the dawn" is literally true. However, metaphorically speaking, it is a statement of hope. Just when it looks like all is lost, dawn appears. There is hope, a change in direction, and light. Aphorisms are similar to proverbs.

An epigram is a short poem that also expresses some truth, but it might have a sarcastic or humorous tone. Epigrams are short because originally they were engraves on tombstones. The usage has evolved, however, to include short poetic passages that end with some kind of twist.

Life’s saving graces are love, pleasure, laughter ...
wisdom, it seems, is for the Hereafter.
Michael R. Burch

Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and John Donne were masters of the epigram.

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed. (Alexander Pope)

As you travel the Internet, be careful. Many sites confuse aphorisms and epigrams.

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