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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Old West Aphorisms

We call them Aphorisms: those pointed, succinct, pithy observations through which we express a truth or general wisdom of what is, not what might be. Aphorisms are thought-provoking, definitive statements with no room for argument or doubt. Examples are Benjamin Franklin’s “Well done is better than well said;” and, in modern times, Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try,” from Star Wars.

In the 19th century, gristmills, and their grinding stones, were so important that colorful Aphorisms entered our language; maxims arising from men’s experiences while grinding wheat, corn and other winnowed grains—called grist—into flours. Whether privately owned, or cooperatively operated by a community, gristmills were crucial to survival in the old west. The stones were large and heavy, their circular shape made them difficult to handle without specialized tools, and they frequently had to be taken apart and re-carved, or “dressed,” by experienced artisans, as the pattern of grooves carved into the stones that pulverized the grist wore down from constant use.

Few of these gristmill Aphorisms are still in use today as new technologies have steadily replaced less sophisticated methods of food production. Instead, these phrases, although just as true now as they were then, are just a colorful link to a past sometimes seen as “the good old days.”

“It’s all grist for the mill” – meaning, everything can be made useful.

“Run of the mill” – meaning ordinary, average, undistinguished.

“(Put) Through the mill” – like grain being pulverized, this saying meant to be exposed to hardship or rough treatment.

“To have a millstone around one’s neck” – this saying meant to be burdened with a heavy weight of work or anxiety.

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