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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

epic

(1990’s | “grand,” “great,” “wonderful,” “incredible,” “memorable”)

When I was young, I knew all about “epic.” Noun or adjective, it referred to a long, heroic poem that explained how a nation came to be, or laid out legends of deeds lost to history. In the Greco-Roman West, we have Homer and Virgil, but the Mahabharata or the Kalevala also qualify, and dozens of others. (Nobody ever called Exodus an epic, as far as I can remember, but my scholarly readers may correct me.) When I got older, I found out about “epic theater,” as espoused by Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, which had nothing to do with Homer but plenty to do with Aristotle, as these German young Turks demanded new forms and purposes for the drama — less catharsis, more social criticism — and set about writing and producing their own exemplars.

Those are both literary definitions because “epic” was a literary term. It was available for metaphorical use even as an adjective in the 1970’s, but only on special occasions. The word indicated that the hearer was to imagine the story on the scale of Odysseus’s journey to Ithaca. So you might recount the epic saga of getting home after the car broke down, or an epic tale of a controversial bill worming its way through Congress. But mostly it described films and stories, according them the sweep and scope of the ancient poets singing still more ancient feats of arms and guile. Not just long and complicated, but stirring and uplifting as well.

You can probably guess what’s next. “Epic” has not lost all of its mojo, but it is used to describe many, many things that can’t reasonably be compared to the old poems, or even old Brecht. Resort visits, automotive performance, hamburger stands, t-shirts, a sports rivalry. Almost anything can attract the name, though it helps if it can claim a modicum of longevity and tradition. The change has occurred largely since 1990, and mostly on the adjective side; the noun has fared a little better. As the adjective has overrun the language, it has generated its own fixed phrases. A favorite example of mine has become familiar to ears of all ages but falls primarily from younger lips: “epic fail,” a punchy and rather appealing evocation of at least minor disaster caused by human action. When a kid rolls her eyes and says, “It was an epic fail!,” you can be sure it didn’t go well. From the world of commerce: I had not known that there is a cryptocurrency called “Epic Cash.”

There is an obvious connection to “iconic,” but I’m more inclined to compare “epic” to “awesome.” “Awe” had real power once, not that long ago, and “awesome” had replaced “awful” as its adjective. An awesome thing was magnificent, colossal, humbling. As everyone knows, that’s all over now. “Awesome” has become threadbare and reduced, mouthed a propos of anything cool or nifty (has that word died? It was better than “neat-o”) — all it says is that the speaker likes the thing in question. “Epic” has so far held onto more of its power, but who’s to say that will last? Another decade or two, it may be just as attenuated as “awesome.”

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