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You know what I mean. The word "epic" has been overused for quite some time now.

I was recently referred to Wiktionary as a trusted source, and I see this example in use:

(colloquial) Extending beyond the usual or ordinary; extraordinary, momentous, great.

The after-prom party was epic.

I can't help but think that this was written by someone who is personally guilty of abusing the word themselves. I see this definition on Dictionary.com:

heroic; majestic; impressively great: the epic events of the war.

Is it fair to say that the word's meaning is being very much stretched in the first example, and in the way you would commonly hear it lately? (That pizza was epic!, I had an epic hangover.)

I would love to tell people as a matter of fact that the word doesn't mean what they think it means due to my personal annoyance with its overuse, but I don't know if I have a leg to stand on.

Has this usage always been technically correct? How about appropriate? If I am mistaken, I will forever hold my peace.

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This question is really bad! And quite frankly even I don't know (or care much) exactly what I meant by that! –  FumbleFingers May 20 '11 at 14:23
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@Wesley: It's common for slang to either ridiculously exaggerate or to totally reverse established meanings. Your epic and my bad are typical examples of those two characteristics. But by way of a (feeble) joke, I just meant that the question could be seen as 'not very good' because there isn't a straight yes/no answer. It's really just an invitation to give subjective opinions in an area where people frequently are very opinionated. Me included, so I simultaneously approve and disapprove of the question. –  FumbleFingers May 20 '11 at 16:34
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@Wesley: We may have to disagree on that one. I think it's mostly pretty meaningless to draw a distinction between 'technically valid' and 'appropriate'. Certainly any discussion on that point would be dominated by subjectivity. I'm sorry my 'jokette' fell flat, but we can't all be Stephen Fry. –  FumbleFingers May 20 '11 at 16:55
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This usage is just hyperbole. There's nothing ungrammatical about hyperbole but many object to it as clichéd or poor style. You won't find any sources that could legimately call such uses ungrammatical or somehow “wrong”. –  nohat May 21 '11 at 0:20
    
This question is AWESOME. I am in awe of it. –  Seamus Feb 13 '12 at 13:52
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9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

This usage of epic wouldn’t have been correct fifty years ago, but it is correct now. Meanings shift and change; that’s how language works, and especially quickly in the case of popular slang. Dictionaries aim to describe not prescribe the language, so inevitably they lag behind the latest changes.

So if you tell people “it doesn’t mean what you think it means”, that’s inaccurate — and also inconsistent, unless you’d also criticise someone saying “That pizza was fantastic!” or “I had an awful hangover.” (The pizza was real, not a fantasy! The hangover was probably not filled with awe!)

Why not just tell them that they’re overusing the word epic, and that it’s getting irritating? This is more accurate about what the problem is — overuse of great! or super! would be just as annoying, although there’s no question of their meaning — and more honest about the fact that this is a stylistic judgement, not a question of grammatical (in)correctness.

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This sounds pretty accurate, although I wouldn't criticize someone for overusing the word "great", simply because it's so common (which could eventually apply to epic). Overuse of "Super" would definitely be annoying, in fact more so than "Epic", but that's a word I rarely hear people use in this context (it's a little goofy). Thanks for the analogy to "fantastic" and "awful" - that puts makes sense, and I never thought about it that way. –  Wesley Murch May 20 '11 at 16:29
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I agree with your article, however in opening paragraph you say that such usaage of epic would not have been correct fifty years ago, but if you look at ngrams.googlelabs.com/… you will find the term 'epic adventure' quite consistently since 30s. I am not saying that this proves that you are wrong, but I am wondering if 'such' usage was ever 'wrong'? –  Unreason May 21 '11 at 7:58
    
@Unreason: That's kind of what I was asking. I would never have asked if I had understood that this usage of epic, in regards to something like a pizza, was appropriate. –  Wesley Murch May 24 '11 at 16:58
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@Unreason: epic adventure is surely rather closer to the older senses of epic? I can’t think of a good test case for how old the shift is, though — something which exhibits the same semantic stretch as that pizza was epic but which would be common enough that one might expect it to register in Ngrams (which only has data up to about 2007). –  PLL May 24 '11 at 17:48
    
there is another possibility - that the semantic field of the term epic in the phrase 'that pizza was epic' did not actually move, but rather that it had become more acceptible to use 'epic' in a rhetorical figure of exagertion, while the real meaning of the word does not shift (necesserily) - and that is why the statement is so 'coool'. ;) –  Unreason May 24 '11 at 22:15
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From your own quote of the definition, you have

heroic; majestic; impressively great: the epic events of the war.

The question is what exactly is preventing you to apply the emphasized meanings to your examples:

That pizza was epic! -> That pizza was majestic (impressively great)!

similarly:

I had an epic hangover. -> I had an impressive(ly great) hangover.

(take a note that 'impressively great' does not only mean great in a majestic way, but also as in impressively strong, etc)

Etymology comes from epos - "word, story, poem" and other meaning of epic, as a noun cover a long story or a long poem (long in the sense that it talks at length about something, accounting for various details and this was usually reserved for 'great' stories - great wars, great adventures, great struggles or great poems).

Consequently, to say that something is great, in the way that it would, typically, be described in an epic story, it can said that it is epic.

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I had the same thought: how is "impressively great" materially different from "extending beyond the usual or ordinary; extraordinary, momentous, great". One might accuse the speaker of low standards, but certainly not error in word usage. –  horatio May 20 '11 at 18:35
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Just a nerd's opinion, but...

For myself and a lot of others in my age range (late teens - early 20's), the modern usage of the word "epic" began with the World of Warcraft. Certain items were given classifications based on their quality (as well as their level of difficulty in obtaining them) - Epic being the highest level. Eventually, at least for myself and my peers, that made its way out into our everyday speech, which is largely the same time I heard it being used by other people as well.

However, I understand that this definitely isn't the origin of the word itself - just the context in which many young people use it today (which is largely outside of literary circles).

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+1 for the most pertinent and plausible answer. –  Kris Feb 13 '12 at 15:21
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Technically, the usage of epic is correct in its context in that it's used to describe an event as being particularly spectacular, which fits the definition of epic. However, it's sort of replacing older slang to indicate the same idea ("Awesome!" "Cool!" "Neato!").

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I had a cool/neato hangover? –  Wesley Murch May 20 '11 at 16:20
    
Well obviously epic can describe an object in a negative light as well, unlike cool or neato. He wasn't asking what epic meant though... –  Neil May 24 '11 at 10:48
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my two cents: if you're a prescriptive grammarian, then "epic" should be used as Dictionary.com defines it; if you're a descriptive grammarian, then the way people use it as an interjection (i.e. "Wow, that was EPIC!") would be grammatically correct.

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Here’s the OED entry for epic:

epic, adj. and n.

Pronunciation: /ˈɛpɪk/

Forms: Also 15–18 epick, 16 epique, (epik).

Etymology: < Latin epicus, < Greek ἐπικός, < ἔπος word, narrative, song. Compare French épique.

A. adj.

  1. Pertaining to that species of poetical composition (see epos n.), represented typically by the Iliad and Odyssey, which celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic personages of history or tradition.

    Epic dialect: that form of the Greek language in which the epic poems were written. [citations 1589—a1878]

  2. Such as is described in epic poetry; epic theatre, a play or plays characterized by realism and an absence of theatrical devices. [citations 1731—1957]

B. n.

  1. † An epic poet. Obs. [citations a1637—a1637]

  2. a. An epic poem. [citations 1706—1876]

    b. transf. A composition comparable to an epic poem.

    The typical epics, the Homeric poems, the Nibelungenlied, etc., have often been regarded as embodying a nation's conception of its own past history, or of the events in that history which it finds most worthy of remembrance. Hence by some writers the phrase national epic has been applied to any imaginative work (whatever its form) which is considered to fulfil this function. [citations 1841—1965]

  3. fig. A story, or series of events, worthy to form the subject of an epic. [citations 1831—1855]


CITATION

epic, adj. and n.

Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/63237; accessed 20 January 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1891.

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You should understand the Wiktionary's tag colloquial

Denotes words or expressions that likely arose via casual conversational language, and are likely to be used primarily in casual conversation rather than in more formal written works, speeches, and discourse. Compare similar tag informal. Note: It is a common misconception that colloquial somehow denotes "location" or a word being "regional". This is not the case; the word root for colloquial is related to locution, not location.

You answer should be something like: It may have been big ... but it was hardly epic ... (and if you truly want to be snarky, add: except in a small mind.)

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My take is that, no, it’s not a problem, precisely because the exaggeration is obvious, just like saying “go ballistic” to mean “get really angry”.

The problem comes for words in the middle whose casual use would imply an exaggeration unknown to the user of the expression. I once saw a rant of a man about such use of the word “fantastic”. He recounted that as he and his wife were leaving the house in the care of the babysitter, he told the babysitter something like “There’s some food in the fridge for you, if you like.” – to which the babysitter replied, “Fantastic!”. The man in his rant then asked the reader, “I wonder what she would have said if I had told her the bathtub was full of beer.”

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The word epic actually means "small or insignificant" although it is not used in the right context nowadays and has inadequately become to mean "huge", but this is wrong. Use the Collins Concise English Dictionary to find out more.

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Where do you see a definition of epic that means 'small or insignificant'? That seems very strange to me. Can you give a link? I can't seem to find a reference that says anything like that. –  Mitch Jan 20 '12 at 19:26
    
Ditto. I'm gobsmacked if "epic" "actually means small or insignificant", or ever did. –  Hexagon Tiling Feb 16 '12 at 7:52
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protected by RegDwigнt Feb 13 '12 at 13:10

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