Mighty Red Pen

January 7, 2011

Sticks and stones: Epitaph vs. epithet

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:58 pm
Tags: ,

The New York Times has an excellent series of opinion pieces responding to the NewSouth Books edition of Huckleberry Finn. This is the edition edited by Alan Gribben which will redact the n-word and the word “Injun.” If you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth taking the time to read them. I was especially interested in “Why Is ‘Slave’ Less Offensive?” by Francine Prose.

One essay, “Why Read That Book?” by Paul Butler turned up this excellent typo (which has since been fixed):

Oddly enough, it took me a minute to figure out that a. epitaph was not the right word and b. that the word that was wanted here was epithet. It must be because neither of these are words I use particularly often. But here’s the deal: When you want to talk about the words written on a tomb or gravestone, that’s an epitaph. When you want to talk about “a disparaging or abusive word or phrase,” the word you want is epithet.



  1. I have rarely used epithet either. However, often, when I’ve come across it, it’s the first dictionary definition that’s intended, “a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing”.

    Comment by Alan Palmer — January 11, 2011 @ 7:39 am | Reply

    • @Alan, you’re right to point out that that’s the first definition in M-W dictionary. Do you think that’s what Butler was intending here in his use of the word?

      Comment by mighty red pen — January 11, 2011 @ 7:08 pm | Reply

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