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An 'epic' takedown


For the New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes about the most annoying word revival: epic. After reading this text last week, I realized the word “epic” is almost everywhere–or at least mainly concentrated in Midwestern US Irish pubs and hockey games. Read Heller’s epic taken down in partial here, or in [full via the New Yorker.][1]

How did this word become the term of art for lame meals and dudetastic projects? “Epic,” by most dictionaries, holds two adjectival meanings, one literal (pertaining to an epic poem or something like it) and another figurative (being epic-ish in size or effort). Leeway is, to reasonable degrees, allowed. The original term, which has its roots in the Greek verb for speaking, described a heroic story of oral origin. Since then, it has drifted toward what’s classical in form more than in fact. In 1644, John Milton held up the epic, broadly defined, as a model to inspire all poets. By 1752, Dr. Johnson had begun to mock such reaching and its mooncalf hyperbole. (“To be poor, in the epick language, is only not to command the wealth of nations.”) The epic has always been a brass ring for creative people, who have used it to describe strong efforts that invariably fall short of their goals.

Yet nothing is creative about the term in its recent usage. Three years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary began tracking, without incorporating, the toast-style meaning of “epic.” The O.E.D. traced it to a USA Today article, from 1983. There—surely the most inauspicious of all starts—the word joined a parade of the era’s most asinine slang (“mint, awesome, prime, epic, golden”). By 1985, it was showing up in Surfer magazine, to describe waves, and, by the late nineties, it had settled into the cringeworthy constructions where it sits today (“Want to look totally epic this year at . . . the pool?”). This is a long dive from the Odyssey. If we used to claim “epic” proportions in our aspirational straining, we now claim them, lazily, by mere association.

Resisting epic toast does not mean resisting the idea that words can have new meanings. A woman who says her friend is “woke” is using an old term, but she’s giving it a precise new spin: a balance of alertness, awareness, and social-justice urgency that would otherwise require a paragraph to explain. Saying that your weekend was “epic” is saying nothing about it, except, perhaps, that your conversation partner was lucky to be elsewhere for those days.

People who string words together for a living—generally a difficult, obsessive, detail-niggling tribe—tend to take inordinate delight in new slang, much in the way that people who study beetles love new bugs. I have probably published the phrases “for a while” and “during some years” almost as many times as I’ve read them. They are boring. How much more delightful would it be to say that Joseph Haydn lived in Hainburg for a minute? Or that Guy Debord’s later work was hella bootsy? Good slang words are the opposite of reductive. They belong to the expanding outer ring of the lexicon, the only part that is legitimately in flux.

“Epic” is not one of those good words. It advances no new combination of ideas. It’s an old term reaching toward an old meaning, with new desperation. When Zander says his party was epic, he is trying to communicate that the d.j. whom he has hired at three hundred dollars an hour—and the people who had nothing much better to do at 2 A.M. in midwinter—partook of a tradition in which battles were fought, six-headed monsters were met, and lives succumbed to ideals such as loyalty and love. Most good slang comes from marginalized, or at least regionalized, communities, in part because slang answers a need to articulate experience outside the mainstream. Zander merely strains toward the canonic. “Epic” is the watchword of lucky white men trying to pose as other lucky white men who suffered more interesting lives.

*Image of “Dude, Where’s My Car” via