Glossary Home Figurative Language


An adage is a short, familiar and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.

It is based on facts of some kind, usually those gained from common life experience. The most famous adages have been in use for a great many years and gained popularity through reuse. These sayings are passed on through time until their original context is less important than the meaning they hold for those who use them.

These statements are wide-ranging. They might be based on metaphor, mundane life, religious or spiritual belief. Adages are often mistaken for proverbs and vice versa. A proverb is practical and less general. It usually gives advice or presents a piece of common sense. An adage is wider-ranging as the examples below demonstrate.

Examples of Adage in Literature

Example #1 The Works of William Shakespeare

The Bard is likely responsible for more common everyday sayings than any other writer who’s ever lived. This might seem strange at first considering the style in which he wrote and the number of words that are unfamiliar to contemporary readers. But, if you take a closer look there are dozens to be found within his plays. For example, the phrase “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” from one of his most famous plays, Hamlet. This adage encourages the listener to be responsible for their own finances and keep their nose out of other people’s money troubles.

Or, even better known, from The Merchant of Venice, “Love is blind”. This quote falls in act 2 scene 6. It is spoken by the character Jessica and followed by “and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit”. Love makes us blind to what’s good for us, good for our partner, and the actions and we are taking.

Example #2 In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson

In Memoriam: A.H.H.’ is often considered to be Tennyson’s masterpiece. It is a long poem that was composed after the death of a close friend. In its many cantos, there are several memorable sayings, but, by far the most commonly quoted is:

Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

These lines, which are incredibly poetic and moving,  give the reader a piece of important advice. Love, whether maintained or lost, is the most important thing. If you fell in love, lost it, and are mourning that fact, you are still luckier than those who never had it.

These lines are well-remembered for their meaning, but they also remain familiar because of their regulated meter and their use of enjambment and alliteration. The repetition of words starting with “l” give these lines a rhythm that makes them easier to remember and more pleasurable to say. This helped this particular phrase gain traction. The more words can stick in a reader’s mind the more likely they are to repeat them.

The use of enjambment in these lines also adds to their overall impact and drama. Tennyson has chosen to separate the two lines at a different point they would not be as impactful.

Example #3 Aesop’s Fables

This collection of stories is derived from Aesop, a Greek writer who lived 2,600 years ago. It contains some of our best-loved and most commonly told stories. These include “The Tortoise and the Hare,”The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” and “The Fox and the Lion”. In the first of these examples, a reader can find the age-old saying “Slow and steady wins the race”. This phrase comes from the story of the tortoise and the hare. It tells of a prideful, overconfident hare, a determined, wise tortoise and the race the two engaged in.

Known by children around the world, the story teaches perseverance, hard work, and the nurturing of one’s natural talents. It also speaks to what one should avoid in their life. It provides an example of the detrimental nature of price and cruelty towards others. The phrase embodies the overall themes of the story.

As another example from Aesop’s Fables, a reader can look to “The Bee-Keeper and the Bees” and the phrase “Things are not always what they seem”.

Example #4 Forest Gump

Moving beyond literature to one of the most widely loved movies of all time, Forest Gump. In amongst the story of Forest’s life, there are several notable sayings that encapsulate certain scenes and moments in his life. One of the most prominent is “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get”. As with this adage, and those other examples on this list, they’ve mostly lost their context. They have been repeated so many times by so many different people in different contexts that they have taken on a meaning of their own. Where they came from is no longer important.

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