Epigram - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Benjamin Franklin



Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

An epigram is a concise, clever, and sometimes paradoxical statement or line of verse. Adjective: epigrammatic. Also called, simply, a saying. A person who composes or uses epigrams is an epigrammatist.

Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oscar Wilde are all known for their highly epigrammatic writing styles.
Irish poet Jane Wilde (who wrote under the pen name "Speranza") observed that "epigram is always better than an argument in conversation."

Examples and Observations

  • "The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws."
  • "There are no gains without pains."
    (Benjamin Franklin, "The Way to Wealth")
  • "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing."
    (Benjamin Franklin)
  • "The Child is father of the Man."

    (William Wordsworth, "My Heart Leaps Up")
  • "The only way to have a friend is to be one."
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "On Friendship")
  • "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
    (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance")
  • "In Wildness is the preservation of the world."
    (Henry David Thoreau, "Walking")
  • "The old believe everything: the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything."
    (Oscar Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young")
  • "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."
    (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • "No one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend."
    (Groucho Marx)
  • "The only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism."
    (Dorothy Parker)
  • Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about other people
  • "Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine."
    (Fran Lebowitz)
  • "Asked for his favorite epigram, Karl Marx responded, 'de omnibus disputandum,' i.e., 'doubt everything.'”
    (Dan Subotnik, Toxic Diversity. NYU Press, 2005)
  • "Audiences are always better pleased with a smart retort, some joke or epigram, than with any amount of reasoning."
    (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
  • "What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, its body brevity, and wit its soul."
    (Samuel Coleridge)
  • "The art of newspaper paragraphing is to stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram."
    (Don Marquis)
  • "A brilliant epigram is a solemn platitude gone to a masquerade ball."
    (Lionel Strachey)
  • "Three things must epigrams, like bees, have all:
    A sting and honey and a body small."
    (Latin verse, quoted by J. Symonds, Studies of the Greek Poets, 1877)

Renaissance Epigrams: Gall, Vinegar, Salt, and Honey

"In the Renaissance, George Puttenham remarked that the epigram is a 'short and sweete' form 'in which every mery conceited man might without any long studie or tedious ambage, make his friend sport, and anger his foe, and give a prettie nip, or shew a sharpe conceit [i.e., idea] in few verses' (The Art of English Poesy, 1589). Epigrams of both praise and blame were a popular Renaissance genre, notably in the poetry of Ben Jonson. The critic J.C. Scaliger in his Poetics (1560) divided epigrams into four kinds: gall, vinegar, salt, and honey (that is, an epigram could be bitterly angry, sour, salacious, or sweet)."
(David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms. Yale University Press, 2007)

Types of Epigrams

The Epigram is expressed in various ways:

A. In the Epigrammatic style. It now refers to a style marked by point and brevity. It does not necessarily involve contrast.
B. Emphatic assertion. "What I have written, I have written."
C. Indirect or concealed statement. A kind of mingling of literal and figurative.
D. Punning
E. Paradox

(T. Hunt, Principles of Written Discourse, 1884)

The Lighter Side of Epigrams

Jeremy Usborne: Oh come on, mate. How am I going to see Nancy again if you don't give me a pass? She clearly hates me.

Mark Corrigan: Well, maybe you should take that as a sign.

Jeremy Usborne: I'm not giving up that easily. Faint heart never won fair maid.

Mark Corrigan: Right. The epigram that starts the stalker's manifesto.
(Robert Webb and David Mitchell in "Gym." Peep Show, 2007)

Pronunciation: EP-i-gram

From the Greek, epigramma, "inscription"

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Nordquist, Richard. "Epigram - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epigram-1690660. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Epigram - Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epigram-1690660 Nordquist, Richard. "Epigram - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epigram-1690660 (accessed March 31, 2023).