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Epigrams are short statements, typically in verse, which can be witty, instructive, or both. Originally used as ancient Greek funerary inscriptions, the epigram now refers to a pithy statement, such as Ronald Reagan’s declaration: “The difference between them and us is that we want to check government spending and they want to spend government checks.” An epigram can be a pun, adage, paradox, or chiasmus.
In ancient Greece, epigrams were inscribed on tombs. The epigram of Simonides, written after the battle of Thermopylae, is typical of these poems. It can be literally translated, “Stranger, announce to the Spartans that here / We lie, having fulfilled their orders.”
Masters of the ancient Roman epigram include Marcus Valerius Martial, Gaius Valerius Catullus, and Domitus Marsus. Roman epigrams are shorter than their Greek predecessors, and often include a joke or insult in their last line. For example, Martial wrote: “You give me nothing during your life, but you promise to provide for me at your death. If you are not a fool, you know what I wish for!”
Rhymed couplets are the most popular form of epigram in English speaking countries. Seventeenth century author John Dryden composed the following: “Here lies my wife: here let her lie! / Now she’s at rest – and so am I.” In the mid 1900s, Ogden Nash published the rhymed poem “Reflections on Ice-Breaking,” which reads “Candy / Is Dandy, / But liquor / Is quicker.” Some writers prefer prose to poetry, such as Oscar Wilde’s “I am not young enough to know everything.”
Many epigrams are also proverbs. Benjamin Franklin mastered this type with adages such as “Little strokes / Fell great oaks.” Others are written in the chiasmus form, with parallel but inverted phrases. An example from Dwight D. Eisenhower is: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Other epigrams are paradoxes and double entendres. Oscar Wilde famously stated: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Comedian Will Rogers advised people to “Make crime pay. Become a lawyer,” and writer Dorothy Parker parodied Shakespeare with “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”
Epigrams are often confused with the similar sounding terms epigraph, epitaph, and epithet. An epigram can also be an epigraph if it is quoted at the beginning of a book or chapter, or an epitaph if it is inscribed on a gravestone. When epigrams insult someone, they are also epithets, such as Dorothy Parker’s description of Katharine Hepburn: “She runs the entire gamut of emotions from A to B.”