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What is an Adage?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By MrMoody — On Jun 02, 2011

@Charred - I think Aesop’s fables, which are basically morality tales, come prepackaged with adages. There is usually a moral of the story at the end of each tale, like “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “Beauty is only skin deep,” and so forth.

I don’t think any adage definition would be complete without some reference to Aesop’s fables.

By Charred — On Jun 01, 2011

@NathanG - Sometimes Biblical adages are misquoted. For example people say things like “money is the root of all evil,” attributing the saying to the Bible. However, as our pastor likes to patiently point out, the Bible actually says the love of money is the root of all evil.

There is a big difference (I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief after that).

By NathanG — On May 30, 2011

@David09 - Yes, King Solomon wrote many wise sayings. His adage quotes number into the thousands from what I recall. The problem is that he didn’t live by some of his own adages, especially in the area of his many wives.

What I’ve always found curious is that even when he slid back into his old ways and lived a profligate lifestyle (as he records in Ecclesiastes), he said “My wisdom stayed with me.” He seemed to never forget all of his pithy, witty and wise sayings even when he was breaking some of the most important of them.

By David09 — On May 29, 2011

If you want a list of old adages, you need to look no further than the Bible. In the Bible you will find the book of Proverbs, which is a book of wise sayings many of which are relevant still today.

For example, there are adages about money, like never cosigning a loan, a lot of sayings about the evils of adultery, sayings about the preeminence of wisdom over folly, as well as truths about prosperity and poverty.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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