“Epi-” Words for Writers

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The Greek prefix epi– means something like *on, over” and occurs in several English words. Here are some writing-related words that begin with it.

epic Although the epi– in this word isn’t actually a prefix, I’ll include it because it is an important literary term. It comes from the Greek for “word.” In English it refers first of all to the long poems by Homer and Virgil: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.

By extension it can mean any long poem that tells traditional stories and describes the way of life peculiar to a nation. For example, the Old English epic Beowulf, Old French The Song of Roland, and the German Niebelungenleid. It can also mean any literary creation that is long and follows a story across many years.

epigram – An epigram is a short, pithy saying, what moderns might call a “sound bite.” The word originally meant an inscription, which by its nature would have been brief. The Roman poet Martial made a specialty of them. Closer to our own times are those of Oscar Wilde:

• A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

• A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.

• Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.

epigraph This word also had the original meaning of “inscription,” something brief written over something. An epigraph is a quotation that begins a book or a chapter in a book. The epigraph suggests the theme of the book or chapter. One of my favorite epigraphs is the one for The Night of the Hunter:

Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

It’s an appropriate epigraph because the children in the novel are being pursued by the very man who should be their protector.

George Eliot heads all 86 chapters of Middlemarch with an epigraph. She was quite a reader.

episode – An episode is a unit of action in a literary work, or one performance of a radio or television series. When I was young, there were movie serials; we’d see the latest episode on Saturday. George Lucas must be familiar with the old movie serials because that’s how he framed his six-part StarWars epic.

Episodes are integral parts of a novel, but if they are not tied to the main story in a believable manner, your work will be criticized as being “episodic,” and that’s not a good thing.

epitaph – Another word that began as an inscription, an epitaph is a written composition of a few lines meant to be carved on a tombstone. A typical epitaph would be:

Here lies Mary Brown, beloved wife and mother.

Epitaphs can be amusing.

Here are some that adorn the graves of men who died when the West was being won:

Here lies Lester Moore.
Four slugs
From a forty-four.
No Les
No More.

He called
Bill Smith
A Liar

Bill Blake
Was hanged by mistake.

Here’s an epitaph from the grave of an Englishman named Partridge who died in the month of May:

What? Kill a Partridge in the Month of May?
Was that done like a sportsman? Eh, Death, eh?!

Sometimes they indicate the manner of death:

Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake,
Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.

Sometimes they’ speak in the voice of the departed:

“I told you I was sick!”

Sometimes they are philosophical:

Here lies an Atheist 
All dressed up 
And no place to go.

And sometimes they tell a life story in a few words:

Rebecca Freeland
She drank good ale,
good punch and wine
And lived to the age of 99.

epithalamium – This is a Greek word meaning “nuptial song” Ancient poets Pindar, Sappho and Catullus wrote them. The most famous one in English, Epithalamion, was written by Edmund Spenser for his own wedding.

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7 thoughts on ““Epi-” Words for Writers”

  1. One of the most famous epigrams is the one of William Shakespeare, and I am surprised that after all these year (it is now 2017), nobody has mentioned it. Do you know it?

  2. Nobody had yet mentioned an AMERICAN epic poem: “Evangeline”, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
    It is interesting that a man named “Longfellow” wrote a very long poem.

  3. I would say the “Old English” (more like an Esser Saxae mishmash of their Esser Sax dialect, the various Angeln dialects, Wesser Saxae and Suthsax dialects and the Kentish Jute dialect(s))

    is more of a polemic attack than an epic

    It’s like what Genesis / Bereshyt are to Enuma Elish. Beowulf was “recomposed” to attack the North Sea/Germanic pagan folklore and traditions in a sly manner.

    The original Beowulf I would say is obviously an epic

    Or maybe we could say it’ s an epic polemic? Polemic epic? Lol

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