Inspirational words

(A Dilbert, to introduce a recently-finished inventory of Dilbert postings about language matters on Language Log and this blog, here on this blog.)

Yesterday’s Dilbert, in which Dogbert offers a (not very encouraging) inspirational, motivational saying to Dilbert:


This particular aphorism is a quote (“In the long run, we are all dead”) — from John Maynard Keynes in 1923.

Background: On the term saying, from NOAD2:

a short, pithy expression that generally contains advice or wisdom

and from Wikipedia:

any concisely written or spoken linguistic expression that is especially memorable because of its meaning or structure

(not quite the same thing).

And then on the somewhat more specific term aphorism. Again, first from NOAD2:

a pithy observation that contains a general truth, such as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And then, with considerably more detail, from Wikipedia:

An aphorism (from Greek ἀφορισμός aphorismos, “delimitation”) is a terse saying, expressing a general truth, principle, or astute observation, and spoken or written in a laconic and memorable form. Aphorism literally means a “distinction” or “definition”.

The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. The oft-cited first sentence of this work (see Ars longa, vita brevis) is: Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.

The term was later applied to maxims of physical science, then statements of all kinds of philosophical, moral, or literary principles. In modern usage an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation, cleverly and pithily written.

A well-known example is: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Lord Acton)

Aphorisms are often unattributed — there are a fair number of folk aphorisms (like the “ain’t broke” one) — but some are inspirational or motivational quotes with attributions (not necessarily accurate; remember that some people are “quote magnets”). There are collections of such quotes, for instance the BrainyQuote collections here (inspirational) and here (motivational).

In the case of “In the long run, we are all dead”, the source has been nailed down: John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923) Ch. 3:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again.

The Wikiquote entry for Keynes entertainingly illustrates this quote with a piece of public sculpture:


The fountain Circle of Money (Kreislauf des Geldes) in Aachen, Germany. The figurines show different persons dealing with money, while the rotating water symbolizes the circle of money. Sculptured by Karl-Henning Seemann, sponsored by the Sparkasse Aachen.

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