Posted by: Jack Henry | May 23, 2023

Editor’s Corner: Maximize Your Maxims!

Welcome to a new day and another literary term: maxim. No, I’m not talking about the magazine Maxim, which purports to be a magazine that caters “to the modern man with content that promises to seduce, entertain, and continuously surprise readers.” Our friends at Merriam-Webster offer this definition:

: a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct

: a proverbial saying

With the term maxim, you will see some crossover with other terms we’ve discussed (or will discuss soon). As mentioned with fables, they are followed by a moral, or perhaps you might call it a maxim. When we get to proverbs, you will also see some crossover. Here are some examples of maxims from ThoughtCo:

  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • The pen is mightier than the sword.
  • You’re never too old to learn.
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
  • All good things come to those who wait.
  • Many hands make light work.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.

In researching maxims, I tried to find out what set them apart from similar literary terms like axiom or proverb. A scholar by the last name of Grice said there are four types of maxim, as follows:

  • Quality. Must be truthful and supported with evidence.
  • Quantity. Must provide as much information as required.
  • Relation. Must be relevant.
  • Manner. Must avoid ambiguity.

Hmm. These explanations of the different types didn’t really shed any light on what makes a maxim a maxim. I decided to dig further and found an interesting article on the Literary Terms website.

A maxim is a brief statement that contains a little piece of wisdom or a general rule of behavior. Maxims are sometimes written by a single author, for example in the form of philosophical quotations. When a maxim has no specific author, it becomes a kind of proverb–something that just emerges from the culture and survives because people use it, not because any specific person wrote it in a book.

The defining characteristic of a maxim is that it’s pithy–that is, it packs a lot of meaning into just a few words. [KC – There we go. More “pithy” words as I mentioned in my Aphorism article. Wait! These folks give us a difference between pithy aphorisms and pithy maxims!]

Maxims are very nearly the same as aphorisms. The only difference is that maxims are often more straightforward. Whereas aphorisms tend to use metaphor, maxims may or may not do this.

Hmm. Here are two examples and explanations of maxims, that I hope will help:

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This famous saying is a good example of a maxim with a metaphor in it. Rome is a metaphor for whatever you might be working on – a career, a relationship, a long-term project, etc. Whatever it is, the idea of building Rome reminds you that these things take time.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

A maxim without a metaphor. This one is the essence of pithiness – pithy writing is writing that uses the bare minimum number of words while packing in a lot of wisdom and information, without sacrificing clarity!

Here’s hoping that you maximize the fun parts of your day!

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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