There are 4,151 adages. At least there were in the 16th century when Dutch philosopher Erasmus compiled them in his book Adagia. Since then the number of pithy expressions has only grown. Some have become well-known idioms bordering on clichés. Others have been more recently coined and convey profound wisdom about the human condition. We already know that a penny saved is a penny earned. So why not learn more about Goodhart’s Law and Hanlon’s Razor? I’ve compiled 13 such adages and their meanings everyone should know.
What Exactly Is an Adage?
Adages are wise sayings or observations that are commonly known and repeated. They express general rules or truths grounded in experience or common sense. They can be metaphorical, wise or witty.
What distinguishes adages from aphorisms is the credibility these traditional sayings have gained over the years. Their wisdom has stood the test of time so to speak.
Some adages have no known creator. Then there are the ones coined by notable thinkers. They’ve been given proper names and have been elevated to the status of laws, rules or principles. It’s those adages we’re going to focus on.
13 Legendary Adages With Meanings
But who cares about the technicalities? Here are 13 adages with their meanings.
1. Acton’s Dictum
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The first of our adages was famously coined by English historian and writer Lord Acton. It’s an absolute classic and points out the corruptive nature of power as a constant in the universe. The more powerful we become the more our morals are put to the test. A rare counterexample of steadfastness is Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher documented his struggle for virtue in Meditations. Absolute power, so it seemed, did not manage to corrupt him.
2. Benford’s Law of Controversy
Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.
Consider the passion associated with controversial opinions and interpretations. Now imagine what happens if more and more evidence becomes available. The more we learn, the less room there is for personal emotions and feelings. The adage has its origins in the 1980 novel Timescape by astrophysicist and writer Gregory Benford. But perhaps he underestimated the Backfire Effect.
3. Bullshit Asymmetry Principle
The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.
Also known as Brandolini’s Law, the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle captures a circumstance we’ve all experienced. Those with an indifference to the truth are at an advantage. An argument is easily made. But dissecting a claim and verifying propositions and evidence is tiresome. And what if it’s part of the bullshitter’s plan to keep us busy refuting his nonsense? Or worse, an AI presents the nonsense as fact?
4. Lem’s Law
No one reads; if someone does read, he doesn’t understand; if he understands, he immediately forgets.
Lem’s Law was coined by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. At its core, the adage plays with the subjectivity of knowledge and the futility of any attempt to communicate it. How are you supposed to understand and discuss knowledge you don’t even remember not reading? To add to the confusion consider this: Lem coined the expression while writing a faux review about a book that didn’t exist.
5. Muphry’s Law
If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.
This adage is not to be confused with Murphy’s Law, the notion that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Muphry’s Law was coined by John Bangsund in a 1992 newsletter of the Australian Society of Editors. Cunningly misspelled, Muphry’s Law points the finger at something that still holds true in the age of the digital grammar police. Note that I’ve tried very hard not to sneak any ironic mistakes into this paragraph.
6. Law of Holes
If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
The Law of the Holes is an adage with a meaning beyond excavation. It’s a metaphor, of course. About the human tendency to keep making things worse even after we realise we’ve put ourselves in a precarious position. You may also be unsurprised that this is only the first of five laws pertaining to holes, which includes the assessment that once you do stop digging, you’re still in a hole.
7. Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.
Will AI replace your friends? The answer lies in the adage itself. It’s an old principle that was popularised by journalist Ian Betteridge in 2009. Betteridge’s Law is difficult to forget. Once you know about it, you’ll see its application everywhere. According to Betteridge himself, such headlines are an indication that the story is unsubstantiated. But the journalist wanted to run it anyway. In other words, don’t bother reading the article. You’ll keep your friends, even in the age of AI.
8. Peter Principle
In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
This legendary adage is as simple as it is profound. The Peter Principle goes back to a semi-satirical book written by Laurence J. Peter in 1969. It explains why organisations from Sydney to Reykjavik are filled with incompetent workers in leadership positions. According to the author, there’s only one way to escape such a toxic promotion. Cultivate creative incompetence.
9. The Law of Unintended Consequences
Interventions in a complex system tend to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.
When the Law of Unintended Consequences strikes, it’s often due to errors in the analysis of the problem — or ignorance. We tend to turn a blind eye to the undesirable consequences of our actions. Consider the infamous Cobra Effect. In an effort to get a hold of a cobra plague in New Delhi, the British Empire paid people for killing the snakes and turning them in. It worked. Until people started breeding cobras to make a profit. The program was shut down. And the now useless cobras were set free on the streets of New Delhi.
10. Pareto Principle
80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes.
Italian polymath Vilfredo Pareto is the name giver of this legendary adage. Originally Pareto observed that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by only 20% of the population. Today we know that the 80/20 rule applies to almost much anything in the known universe. Such as: A small number of employees gets the vast majority of work done. You can use it to your advantage in decision-making. A few solutions may be enough to solve the majority of your problems.
11. Hanlon’s Razor
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Hanlon’s Razor was coined by a relatively unknown US gentleman called Robert J. Hanlon. Nearly every day we’re confronted with the question of whether someone did something to us on purpose. Or if there were other motivations at play. Hanlon’s adage is a cautioning one. Chances are people are not out to get us. By and large, incompetence or foolishness are better explanations for why your barista made your latte with soy instead of milk five times in a row.
12. Sturgeon’s Revelation
Ninety percent of everything is crap.
This adage is named after science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon who coined it in defence of his genre. It may be true that most science fiction writing was low-quality garbage, he argued. But that applied to any form of art. Sturgeon’s adage may come across as pessimistic. But think about it this way: It also means that 10% of everything is pretty good. You just have to produce a lot of inferior material to get to the good stuff.
13. Whitehead’s Dictum
Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.
Alfred North Whitehead’s adage can be applied to many things, including philosophical truths or adages themselves. The English mathematician knew how much of today’s knowledge is built on ancient wisdom. That doesn’t mean our existence and any conversation about it are pointless. As I mentioned in a post about practical philosophy books, wisdom has to be rediscovered individually.
BONUS: Meyer’s Law
Any email received on a Friday afternoon, shortly before close of business is bad news. Either the sender is terrified of the response, wants to ruin your weekend, or both.
Our bonus adage is a bit of a special case. Meyer’s Law is an observation about a particular kind of email people tend to send shortly before they leave the office for their weekend. It was coined only a year ago by yours truly. So technically, it’s not an adage. The aphorism might even have been formulated before by somebody other than me.
The 16th century is long over and many more adages have found their way into popular culture. Who knows how many there are today? One thing seems clear, though. There’s still room for new pithy observations to be passed down to the coming generations. It’s not that hard to come up with one of your own. The challenge is to make it so memorable that someday, an obscure writer will mention it in a blog post.