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Fresh News: Pithy prose: the wit & wisdom of people named 'W'
Pithy prose: the wit & wisdom of people named 'W'
by Philip Yaffe
Part 3 of an occasional series
I am a collector of quotations. I have been ever since I learned how to write, I mean professionally, not in primary school.
I am particularly fond of what I like to call "pithy prose". These short quotations can cover an unlimited variety of subjects: love, religion, politics, human nature, etc. What unites them is their ability to say more in one or two sentences than could be expressed in a thousand-word treatise. It's like being able to pour a litre of liquid into a half-litre bottle.
They are superb examples of Mark Twain's famous dictum, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
In principle, all writers and public speakers are capable of producing pithy prose, but clearly some are better at it than others.
Any collection of pithy prose must necessarily be biased in terms of what it includes and excludes. I make no apologies for my selections, only for the hundreds of other meritorious quotations I had to leave out.
No one will agree with all these quotations; this was not their intention. You may even find some of them repugnant or outrageous. This was their intention.
We seldom learn anything of value from what we already agree with. Only those ideas that grate on our nerves can open our minds. As with oysters, irritation can produce pearls. So if anything you are about to read annoys or shocks you, try to think clearly and dispassionately about what it is saying. You will either be confirmed in your current belief or shaken into re-examining it.
Either way, you win!
This article is part of an occasional series. In each article, I will be offering more amusing, educating, and exasperating quotations to your judgment. But just to be certain that we agree on what we are talking about, here it is in a nutshell.
Pithy Prose: A quotation where at first you may not be quite certain what it means. But when you become certain, you become equally certain that it couldn't have been said better any other way. In short, big ideas in small packages.
If you have a better definition of pithy prose, please contact me. I would love to hear it.
Who Are These People Named "W"?
Some people, such as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, are pithy prose factories. During their careers they produced hundreds of quotations well worth remembering. Others produced only a handful, but these too are well worth preserving.
This article is dedicated to the wit & wisdom of people with surnames beginning with the letter "w". If you don't recognize some of these people, it doesn't matter. The source of timeless wit and wisdom is not important, only what it said.
If you really want to know who some of these people are, look it up on the Web. That's why it was invented.
Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he isn't. A sense of humor was provided to console him for what he is.
Life is a comedy for those who think... and a tragedy for those who feel.
Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.
The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well.
I'm lazy. But it's the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn't like walking or carrying things.
In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.
Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?
Since people are going to be living longer and getting older, they'll just have to learn how to be babies longer.
Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.
Booker T. Washington
Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.
If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.
Thomas J. Watson
The way to succeed is to double your error rate.
Whenever an individual or a business decides that success has been attained, progress stops.
Nothing so conclusively proves a man's ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.
It is a curious thing... that every creed promises a paradise which will be absolutely uninhabitable for anyone of civilized taste.
The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.
We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to amuse them.
A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures.
Falsehoods not only disagree with truths, but usually quarrel among themselves.
Keep cool; anger is not an argument.
Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.
There is nothing so powerful as truth, and often nothing so strange.
After people have repeated a phrase a great number of times, they begin to realize it has meaning and may even be true.
Beauty is in the heart of the beholder.
History is a race between education and catastrophe.
Our true nationality is mankind.
The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.
You have learned something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.
Silence may be as variously shaded as speech.
The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.
Alfred North Whitehead
Almost all new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.
An enormous part of our mature experience cannot be expressed in words.
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.
Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.
Human life is driven forward by its dim apprehension of notions too general for its existing language.
In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory.
Knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows.
Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.
Seek simplicity but distrust it.
Simple solutions seldom are. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious.
The silly question is the first intimation of some totally new development.
There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays to the devil.
We think in generalities, but we live in detail.
For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.
Violence is like a weed - it does not die even in the greatest drought.
No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.
Not to transmit an experience is to betray it.
The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
A week is a long time in politics.
He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.
If you want to make enemies, try to change something.
In the Lord's Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach.
Never attempt to murder a man who is committing suicide.
If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.
Someone who knows too much finds it hard not to lie.
What can be shown cannot be said.
Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.
It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
Never mistake activity for achievement.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Art for art's sake is a philosophy of the well-fed.
The heart is the chief feature of a functioning mind.
Previously in this series:
Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or even third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. His new book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional will be published in March 2010, and will be available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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