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Definition: epigram from Collins English Dictionary


1 a witty, often paradoxical remark, concisely expressed

2 a short, pungent, and often satirical poem, esp one having a witty and ingenious ending

[C15: from Latin epigramma, from Greek: inscription, from epigraphein to write upon, from graphein to write]

› ˌepigramˈmatic or ˌepigramˈmatical adj

› ˌepigramˈmatically adv

Summary Article: epigram
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Short, witty, and pithy saying or short poem. The poem form was common among writers of ancient Rome, including Catullus and Martial. The epigram has been used by English poets Ben Jonson, John Donne, and Alexander Pope, Irish writers Jonathan Swift and W B Yeats, and US writer Ogden Nash. An epigram was originally a religious inscription, such as that on a tomb.

Irish writer Oscar Wilde and US writer Dorothy Parker produced epigrams in conversation as well as in writing. Epigrams are often satirical, as in Wilde's observation: ‘Speech was given us to conceal our thoughts.’ While Greek epigrams were sometimes satirical, in Roman literature satire became the rule.

The epigram is often based on antithesis, as in Pope's line ‘For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’

Among the earliest examples of epigrams are those of the Greek Simonides of Ceos, who wrote epitaphs in elegiac couplets for the Greeks who died in the Persian wars, a typical example being his couplet on the battle of Marathon: ‘Fighting for Greece, the Athenians at Marathon laid low the might of the gilded Medes’.

An epigram came to mean a miniature poem summing up a single thought or situation. The famous Palatine Anthology contains about 4,000 Greek epigrams from 700 BCAD 1000. The English epigram began with John Heywood, but the poet who employed it to best effect was Pope, as with ‘You beat your pate and fancy wit will come: Knock as you please, there's nobody at home.’ The English writers Prior and Garrick, and the Irish Goldsmith, all used epigrams effectively, as in the 19th century did the English poets Byron and Coleridge, who described the epigram itself in a couplet: ‘What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, Its body brevity, and wit its soul.’ Others who used the form effectively have included English writer Rudyard Kipling, French-born British writer Hilaire Belloc, and Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw.

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