Like coins, words become devalued over time. An example is the once golden word epiphany. It’s from the Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance.”
Epiphany is a lovely, mysterious word that rolls off the tongue and conveys a sense of spiritual revelation. Originally it referred to the theophany of Christ.
theophany: A manifestation or appearance of God or a god to man
As a feast in the liturgical calendar, Epiphany falls on January 6. It commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child and represents the manifestation of his divinity to the Gentiles. The Epiphany is also known as the Theophany.
Thomas de Quincy is credited with bringing epiphany into literary use, but it was James Joyce who was responsible for turning the word into a commonplace for writers.
For Joyce an epiphany was
. . .a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. –quoted in an article by Bernard Richards
Now the word has become a throwaway synonym for realization in the sense of “the action of apprehending with the mind.”
“I had an epiphany one day,” said Jon [Gosselin]. “I made mistakes.”
I had an epiphany later on what the sports highlight is for. — Charlie Sheen
Today I had an epiphany about piracy. I’ve always said that piracy in the sense of copyright infringement, is always discussed in terms of moral and laws, when it is really an economic issue.
Back when I was in school my English teachers taught us that some words are appropriate in some contexts, but inappropriate in others. They illustrated the difference by comparing words and usage to clothing. They’d say things like, You wouldn’t go to a wedding wearing bluejeans,” or You wouldn’t wear a wedding dress to the beach.
That was before people went to church in cut-offs and celebrities showed up on formal talk shows dressed in sandals and ratty tee shirts. As for wearing a wedding dress to the beach, I found this photo of a couple who weren’t satisfied to sit on the sand in their formal attire.
Words are common property and everyone who speaks English is free to invoke the Humpty Dumpty clause:
When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” —Through the Looking Glass.
I think I’ll save epiphany for special occasions.