An adage is an often-quoted saying that has gained a reputation for truth over a long period of time. This differs from a maxim, which is specifically a rule of conduct, and a motto, which is a guiding principle. An epigram is a witty saying, and an aphorism is characterized by conciseness, but some definitions of adage emphasize conciseness as well. Probably the closest synonym is proverb, which also refers to a saying that is old and popular.
Here are some examples and what they mean:
- Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
This saying encourages taking a risk in pursuit of a goal.
- Good things come in small packages.
This statement urges people not to dismiss something that’s small because, despite its size, it may prove valuable.
In Macbeth I, vii, Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth refer to a contemporary adage, when she says,
Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?
This is reportedly a reference to the Proverbs (1566) of John Heywood — a fellow playwright — which included the following saying that Lady Macbeth thought suited to her husband:
- "The cat would eate fishe, but would not wet her feete”
This suggests that it is a foolish stance to wish for something but be unwilling to go to some inconvenience to attain that goal.
This source is actually a compendium that contains many of the standard adages that most Americans are familiar with, including the following, which are couched in the familiar language that most people know them in, though it is in many cases a bit different from Heywood’s turns of phrase:
- All’s well that ends well.
- Beggars can’t be choosers.
- Better late than never.
- Haste makes waste.
- Keep your nose to the grindstone.
- Look before you leap.
- Make hay while the sun shines.
- Neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.
- The fat is in the fire.
- Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
- Strike while the iron is hot.
- Time and tide wait for no man.
- Two heads are better than one.
Readers can see that they share with Shakespeare a source of everyday wisdom, an interesting fact to consider in a world that, on the surface, may seem to have little in common with the Elizabethan Age.