Word Confusion: Epigram vs Epigraph vs Epitaph vs Epithet

Posted March 19, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 26 August 2017

Revised as of:
30 Dec 2016

I have the hardest time remembering what that quote is called at the start of a chapter, and when I discovered epigraphs were getting confused with epigrams, epitaph, and epithet, I figured why not.

Epitaph is easy enough. It’s the words on a tombstone. Turns out an epithet was not quite as broad as I had thought. I assumed it was any swear words or nasty names to call people. Turns out it’s both more and less. The more is that it can be both a positive epithet as well as a negative one. It is also a label for how species are named with the epithet being the distinctive name. The negative side of what I learned about epithets (for me) is that it’s a group of words, a phrase, and not just a single word. Damn.

When it comes to the epigram and the epigraph, it’s a fine hair. Both are short lengths of inspiring text. The difference is that an an epigraph may be inscribed on a building, tablet, memorial, or used as part of the introduction to a chapter in a book while an epigram is the text that could be inscribed onto a building or tombstone.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Epigram Epigraph Epitaph Epithet
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Merriam-Webster

It looks like one of those chalk menus covered in text, Latin in this case, with some graphics in red and yellow

“Bourchier Anagram Chronogram Epigram, 1623, Tawstock, Devon” is Lobsterthermidor’s own photo (talk) 18:13 UTC, 26 March 2013, and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The tablet on the base of this monument actually combines an anagram, a chronogram, and an epigram.

A horizontal, cream oval with an inscription on a deep golden yellow wall above a stone archway

“The Old Fortress in Corfu” by Dimitris Graffin is under the CC BY license, via VisualHunt

It may be old and indecipherable to most of us, but it’s still an epigraph.

Sue Rangell's tombstone says that she told them she was sick

“Tombstone with Sue Rangell’s Name” is a joke derivative by Sue Rangell, (the original was by Marc29th) and is under the CC BY-SA 1.0 or GFDL licenses, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of a yellow orchid

“Mokara Luenberger Gold Vanda Intergeneric hybrid” is Ramon FVelasquez’s own work under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

The International Orchid Register notes that the orchid known as Mokara Luenberger Gold Vanda has a genus of “Mokara”, the epithet is “Khaw Phaik Suan”, the pollen parent genus is “Vanda” while its epithet is “Kultana Gold”.

Part of Grammar:
Plural for the noun: epigrams
Plural for the noun: epigraphs
Plural for the noun: epitaphs
Plural for the noun: epithets;
Literary Device
Pithy saying or remark expressing an idea in a clever and amusing way

  • A short poem, especially a satirical one, having a witty or ingenious ending
Inscription on a building, statue, or coin

  • Short quotation or saying at at the start of a chapter, section, or the start or end of the book, intended to suggest its theme

Music Lyrics CAUTION: Regarding fair use of musical lyrics, the actual songwriter to get written permission. You may have to pay for the use.

Poetry CAUTION: Regarding fair use of poetry in an epigraph, consult the Poetry Foundation. Be sure to include a credit to the poet and the poem’s title.

Phrase or statement written in memory of a person who has died, especially as an inscription on a tombstone Adjective or descriptive phrase expressing a quality characteristic of the person or thing mentioned

  • Term of abuse


Descriptive title

Part of a scientific name identifying the species, variety, or other subunit within a genus

“I can resist everything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour”
– William Blake

I love the epigraphs Jill Shalvis uses in her Lucky Harbor series!

Hardin Long, 1870–1937

Dear Departed Brother Dave, He chased a bear into a cave

“Here’s my wife: here let her lie! Now she’s at rest — and so am I.” – John Dryden

Old men are often unfairly awarded the epithet “dirty”.

The woman begins to hurl racial epithets at them.

His charitable works have earned him the epithet “Mr. Philanthropy”.

Carl Linnæus came up with the epithet to make it easier to create unique names for plants.

sweetest flower

untimely frost

Adjective: epigrammatic
Adverb: epigrammatically
Adjective: epigraphic, epigraphical
Adverb: epigraphically
Adjective: epitaphic, epitaphless, unepitaphed
Noun: epitaphist
Adjective: epithetic, epithetical
History of the Word:
Late Middle English from the French épigramme, the Latin epigramma, the Greek epi (upon, in addition) + gramma Late 16th century denoting the heading of a document or letter and from the Greek epigraphē, which is from epigraphein, meaning to write on. Late Middle English from the Old French epitaphe via Latin from the Greek epitaphion meaning funeral oration, the neuter of ephitaphios meaning over or at a tomb from epi (upon) + taphos (tomb). Late 16th century from the French épithète, or via Latin from the Greek epitheton, neuter of epithetos meaning attributed from epitithenai meaning add which is from epi (upon) + tithenai to place.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Here Lies Fred by devilelephant, via DIYLife and Pinterest.