I was thinking today about the apparent similarities in spelling at the start of the two words:

  • Epigraph
  • Epilogue

And the fact they have seemingly opposed semantics. The first appearing at the start of a book, and the second appearing at the end.

Etymonline has this to say about the words:

epigraph (n.)

1620s, "inscription on a building, statue, etc.," from Greek epigraphe "an inscription," from epigraphein "to mark the surface, just pierce; write on, inscribe; to register; inscribe one's name, endorse," from epi "on" (see epi-) + graphein "to write" (see -graphy). Sense of "motto; short, pithy sentence at the head of a book or chapter" first recorded in English 1844. Related: Epigraphic; epigraphical.

epilogue (n.)

early 15c., from Middle French epilogue (13c.), from Latin epilogus, from Greek epilogos "a conclusion, conclusion of a speech, inference," from epi "upon, in addition" (see epi-) + logos "a speaking" (see -logy). Earliest English sense was theatrical.

The first description details epi as meaning "on", while the second states that epi means "upon, in addition".

Whereas in the first description we are told that graph is related to "writ[ing]", and in the second that logos is related to "speaking".

No clue then regarding anything about why one is always at the front of a book and the other always at the end. Except for the fact that we are told epi means "in addition", in the epilogue description. Yet why is this not mentioned in the first description?

My question is:

  1. How did these two words come to be completely opposed spatially, when used in the context of text that appears in a book?

1.b. Is there anything in their etymological roots that explains, why one is taken to be that which appears at the start of a book, and the other, that which appears at the end?

  • The “special” difference in usage actually dates back to Ancient Greece usage: An epilogue or epilog (from Greek ἐπίλογος epílogos, "conclusion" from ἐπί- "in addition" and λέγειν légein, "to say") is a piece of writing at the end of a work of literature, usually used to bring closure to the work. – user240918 Nov 21 '17 at 7:11
  • Epilogue: According to Greek rhetoric, the last part of the oratory (corresponding to the Latin Peroration), which aims to move the audience. – user240918 Nov 21 '17 at 7:28
  • I think the usage of epigraph to indicate a phrase or a quotation at the beginning of a book derives from its older original meaning of inscription on the front side of an object, like a statue, a coin or a building. – user240918 Nov 21 '17 at 7:44
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    Epigraphs may occur not only at the beginning of a book, but before each chapter, so the "beginning-end" dichotomy seems not to hold. – Xanne Nov 21 '17 at 9:07
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    You might include epigram, and epitaph in your question, as well – ShpielMeister Dec 26 '17 at 21:00

It looks like the location of "epigram" in a book or chapter is divorced from the prefix "epi-", which is incidental. It's just that the inscription of a sentence or a verse of poetry (epigraph), such as from an earlier writer, on a monument came to be imitated at the start of books, or chapters of books. So the name for that sort of inscription went along with the device itself. In other words, there was nobody who stood in the way, saying, "Whoa! The name for these things starts with 'epi-', just like 'epilogue' does. So you can't stick these at the beginning!"

  • "Epi-" is not incidental -- it's the crux of the misunderstanding. It means "upon" or "in addition". Both "epigram" and "epilogue" fit that meaning. – Hot Licks Mar 14 '18 at 19:06
  • Once a word exists, people who use it don't generally ever think about, or even know, its etymology. Then, when its meaning shifts, it doesn't go by a panel of etymology experts acting as gatekeepers deciding whether to allow the shift. When you use "terrific" as a compliment, do you think you can do so because it has received a special dispensation from etymologists to be used that way even though, etymologically, it means "terror producing", which is what it originally meant? – Green Grasso Holm Mar 14 '18 at 19:37
  • Likewise, "epigraph", formed from "epi-" and "-graph", originally referred to freestanding inscriptions. From that moment on, it became a word whose composition would be transparent to almost all users. The word's meaning later came to be extended to similar inscriptions in books. No one sought an etymologist's approval for this, nor worried about whether this word beginning with "epi-" was being placed at the opposite end of a book from something else that also began with "epi-". Semantic shift just doesn't work like that. – Green Grasso Holm Mar 14 '18 at 19:42
  • Just as people don't have to be right-handed to be called adroit or dextrous, or left-handed to be called gauche or sinister. – Green Grasso Holm Mar 14 '18 at 19:44

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