Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
Epigram originally ment simply "an inscription".
The Greeks started using it to mean a short poem, usually a solemn one. Then the Romans changed it's meaning again, this time using it to mean a short witty poem, with a barb at the end.

We have a pretty witty king,
Whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

The word now also means any clever thought in verse or in prose.

More examples, some of them very clever:

Of Treason
Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
-- Sir John Harrington (1618)

Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness
I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?
-- Alexander Pope (1738)

Their relationship consisted
In discussing if it existed.
-- Thom Gunn (1992)

I'm tired of Love: I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.
-- Hilaire Belloc (1923)

Variation on Belloc's "Fatigue"
I hardly ever tire of love or rhyme --
That's why I'm poor and have a rotten time.
-- Wendy Cope (1992)

Ep"i*gram (?), n. [L. epigramma, fr. Gr. inscription, epigram, fr. to write upon, upon + to write: cf. F. 'epigramme. See Graphic.]


A short poem treating concisely and pointedly of a single thought or event. The modern epigram is so contrived as to surprise the reader with a witticism or ingenious turn of thought, and is often satirical in character.

Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? Shak.

Epigrams were originally inscription on tombs, statues, temples, triumphal arches, etc.


An effusion of wit; a bright thought tersely and sharply expressed, whether in verse or prose.


The style of the epigram.

Antithesis, i. e., bilateral stroke, is the soul of epigram in its later and technical signification. B. Cracroft.


© Webster 1913.

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