Glossary Home Literary Device


Aphorismus is a figure of speech that occurs when a word’s use is called into question.

It does not question a word’s meaning. Instead, it questions whether or not the word was appropriate to use in a situation. For example, “How can you call me a success?” calls into question whether the word “success” should’ve been used in the first place. The sentence expresses the speaker’s concern that they aren’t what they’ve been called. It can also allude to a character’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. 

This device appears most often when a character is giving a monologue. It’s usually used as a turning point that redirects their line of thought, posing a new question that has to be discussed. It can be found in public speaking, plays, poems, and sometimes in novels and short stories. 

Aphorismus pronunciation: a-fore-iz-miss

Aphorismus definition and examples


Definition of Aphorismus 

Aphorismus occurs when a speaker calls into question how a word was used.

In the above example, the speaker is concerned with their “success.” Another example might include a speaker expressing their worries in regard to their strength, skill, intellect, social status, and more. The device is usually used as a rhetorical question, such as “how could I still feel strong after that?” but that’s not always the case. 

The word “aphorismus” comes from the Greek meaning “rejection.” This connects back to the use of the device to question how a word is used and to “reject” that use. For example, someone might say, “Can you even call this place a home?” after seeing a house they were previously interested in purchasing. They’re rejecting the idea that this building would ever be suitable for someone to love and call “home” even though it might be technically perfectly suitable as one. 


Examples of Aphorismus in Literature 

Richard II by William Shakespeare 

The following lines come from Shakespeare’s play Richard II.

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want,

taste grief, need friends; subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king?

In the last line of this excerpt, Richard uses the following example of aphorismus. He says: “How can you say to me I am a king?” Here, he is questioning his own kingliness and his own right to rule. He has needs, just like anyone else, and that makes him feel like he’s not divine enough to rule. This is a great example of how the device is used in the form of a rhetorical question. It also provides the basis for other possible questions a writer might be inspired to craft. For example, “how can you tell me that I’m a winner?” or, “how can you tell me that I’ve succeeded?” Either of these are suitable examples of aphorismus.

Read William Shakespeare’s poetry.


Broken Love by William Blake 

There are several great examples of aphorismus in the lines of ‘Broken Love,’ one of William Blake’s lesser-known poems. Here are a few lines from one stanza that include one of those examples: 

‘O’er my sins thou sit and moan:

Hast thou no sins of thy own? 

O’er my sins thou sit and weep,

And lull thy own sins fast asleep.

Blake writes, “Hast thou no sins of thy own?” calling into question the premise that his speaker has sinned and that the listener hasn’t. This person sits and weeps over “my” sins and lulls their own “sins fast asleep.” 

Read more William Blake poems.


Examples of Aphorismus in Public Speaking 

One of the best-known examples of the technique occurred when President Bill Clinton took the stand in the Grand Jury impeachment trial after he was found guilty of lying about his relationship with an intern. He testified under oath using these words: 

It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. 

This was in reference to a previous statement he made which read: “there is nothing going on between [me and Monica Lewinsky].” In the second statement, he’s calling into question the meaning of the word “is,” suggesting that there was nothing going on between the two at the time he was speaking. 

Another example can be found in Eugene Deb’s anti-war speech, given in 1918 in Canton, Ohio. The lines read:

Why, the other day, by a vote of five to four—a kind of craps game—come seven, come ‘leven —they declared the child labor law unconstitutional … and this in our so-called democracy,

Included in this statement is the phrase “our so-called democracy.” This suggests that the United States is not as much of a democracy as those living in the country would like to think. Specifically, Debs was thinking about child labor and went onto say that “we may continue to grind the flesh and blow and bones of puny little children into profits […]”


Why Do Writers Use Aphorismus? 

Writers use aphorismus in order to express concern, disbelief and to disagree with how a word or phrase is used.

It can also be used to strengthen a character’s argument and back up their opinion about a particular feeling. This adds depth to a dramatic moment or event and gives the reader insight into how a character is feeling. One might also use it to challenge a preconceived idea of what a word means or how it can be used or to question the validity or legitimacy of something that might not be what it seems to be. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
  • Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
  • Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.


Other Resources 

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