Here Lies—An Epithet or an Epitaph? 

Here are a couple of closely related words that you don’t want to confuse: epitaph and epithet—especially when it comes time to choose the wording on your tombstone.

For that, you’ll want an epitaph—an inscription that encapsulates your life. Note, it’s the inscription, not the actual tombstone, that’s the epitaph. Maybe you’ve heard or read about people hurling epitaphs, but unless it’s a six-hundred-pound gorilla doing the hurling, it’s just not that likely they are tossing gravestones.

What they’re hurling are epithets—derogatory names or slurs.

The original meaning of epithet was more positive. Back in the 1500s, an epithet was a descriptive name, like a nickname. Think of the historical characters Richard the Lionhearted or Catherine the Great. Their epithets conveyed something of who they were. Today, epithet is used almost universally in its disparaging sense.

Here are some other words with the same root epi, which can mean on, attached to, outer, or after.

  • Epigram: a short, often witty or satirical verse
  • Epigraph: an inscription on a building or statue, or a quote or verse at the beginning of a book or chapter that suggests the theme of what follows

An epigram may be used as an epigraph, but not vice versa.

I hope no one puts any offensive epithets on my gravestone for my epitaph. I’d prefer an epigram, but, to be truthful, I’d rather not be dead at all.

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One Comment

  1. Interestingly enough, epithet in Greek simply means “adjective”.

    The noun epitaph can also mean the eulogy, i.e. the speech given in front of the dead (as made famous by Pericles’ speech). Interestingly enough, eulogy is another Greek word that means something different in its original language; in this case, “blessing”.

    As an adjective, epitaph can signify anything that happens next to the grave. For example, on Good Friday churchgoers sing the Epitaph Mourning; a hauntingly melodic selection of psalms that lament the passing of Jesus. This is sang next to the Epitaph; an open box, richly decorated with flowers, that represents the grave of Jesus.

    It’s always interesting to note the changes in meaning as a word is passed on from one language to the other.

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