I have much sympathy with this Susan Sontag piece from Brain Pickings.
I must admit myself to using adages and aphorisms as short-hand for many of my recurring points, some stolen directly from others, some borrowed and modified to suit, some essentially invented / evolved as new species. I use them a great deal in fact. Many of these aphorisms are effectively working chapter titles for my book. But Sontag’s point is so important, that they are no substitute for any wisdom intended, they may make the apparent wisdom easy to share and recall, but we must avoid being lazy and presuming they actually contain or communicate the wisdom.
This is exactly the same issue as the “A Picture Paints a Thousand Words” adage – which first blogged about way back here in 2002, when I followed in back to its 1921 Printer’s Ink origins with the title “An Aphorism Too Far”. The point being a picture (typically these days a brand “icon”) can signify a massively complex point very simply and quickly, but the image does not actually contain much of the message. The communication is one of recall, of something which must already have been learnt, at least implicitly, by the viewer of the image, or the recipient of the aphorism. To think the message is “communicated” by the image or aphorism is lazy and misleading – dangerous – this case in particular, a meta-adage, an aphorism about an image.
Lovely coincidence to see this today, having read and mentally remarked on Sam Norton’s latest tweeted blog post. I had been meaning to respond from the keyboard since reading the post in mobile format at the crack of dawn today.
My initial response was “Sam, you’ve got the acronym wrong it should be APPATW not APAATW”, and was about to deliver my lecture on the “Aphorism Too Far” from 2002. Ha. No, the wise Sam has it right, he does indeed mean “And” a thousand words, not “Paints” a thousand words. The and is so important, you cannot achieve one without the other.