Make Your Editor Cry: Epitaph vs. Epithet

Make Your Editor Cry: Epitaph vs. Epithet

An epitaph is written on a tombstone. Specifically, the epitaph is usually the words inscribed on the stone, but it can also be a memorial statement about someone who has died. Epitaphs are usually grave (see what I did there?), but old ones can sometimes be unintentionally funny, like this one:

“Here lies Lester Moore/Four slugs/From a forty-four/No Les/No more.”

Famous for his comedic jabs at the City of Brotherly Love, actor and writer W.C. Fields once said he wanted “I’d rather be living in Philadelphia” as the epitaph on his tombstone.

The noun epithet is a descriptive nickname, such as “Richard the Lionhearted,” or “Tommy the Terrible.” In short, an epithet is a nickname or a description of someone. When it takes a turn for the worse, it can also be a word or phrase that offends. It’s not necessarily an insult, but these days it’s used that way a lot, like a racial or sexist slur. An epithet is the kind of thing people sling at each other, like “red-headed stepchild.” Mostly, though, an epithet is a description of someone, often a nickname, like if you’re tall and people call you “Daddy Long Legs” or “Long Tall Sally.”

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