As always, dear readers, welcome. If you read us regularly, you know that we love epics of all sorts and periods and cultures. We have also been dictionary readers since we were children. So, when, recently, we heard someone say that something was an “epic fail”, it caught our ear in both an epic and lexicographic (what a great word!) way. Consequently, we thought that it might be fun to do a little investigating and thinking out loud a little about the use of “epic” in that expression
We began by asking ourselves: what is an epic that it can be (silently) compared to something else, in this case, a kind of disaster?
Examples of epics immediately came to mind: the Iliad,
and the Odyssey,
and the Aeneid
—all long stories in verse. And we quickly added Beowulf,
all also long poems in verse, the Mahabharata being said to be the longest of all epics, 200,000 verses long (in contrast, the Iliad has 15,693, while the Aeneid has only 9,896 lines).
The word “epic” itself is from Greek epos, which has a number of possible translations, but, at base, means “something spoken”. This can easily be understood as “something told” and could refer to the work of the first Greek singers, the aoidoi (ah-oy-DOY).
In Homer, we often see the word in the plural, as part of the phrase epea pteroenta, literally “words with wings”. This is used when people speak a lot and/or rapidly, which seems sensible, especially if you’re making a reply or trying to persuade someone of something. There may also be a small poetic joke here, as well, as epea can also mean “lines of verse”, so a character might be said to be speaking in “winged verses” in Homer, at the same time as “winged words”.
“Epic” is an adjective formed from epos, and appears to have become part of the English language during the Elizabethan era. The first known citation comes from George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589), where Puttenham calls John Hardyng (1378-1465), who wrote a rhymed chronicle of the history of England, “a Poet Epicke or Historicall” (Puttenham, Part I, Chapter 31). We’ve sampled a manuscript version of Hardyng’s chronicle in the very useful edition of Simpson and Peverley (and you can, too, at this LINK: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/simpson-pevereley-hardyng-chronicle ) but, although it has the length of a shorter epic (7,042 lines), we would be reluctant to say that Hardyng would ever have the popularity of Homer or Vergil or Valmiki, the poet of the Ramayana.
Still, if you go to the always-handy Etymonline, you’ll find “epic” defined (digesting a longer definition in The Oxford English Dictionary) as, “pertaining to or constituting a lengthy heroic poem.”
And “lengthy”, as you can see, would certainly would fit all of the epics mentioned above, including Puttenham’s Hardyng. So, on the one hand, “epic” in “epic fail” could mean something gone wrong on a scale as big as an epic is long: after all, the war at Troy has been going on for 9 years when the Iliad takes place, and Beowulf covers the full extent of the hero’s life.
But then there’s that word “heroic”.
If we follow that definition, is an “epic fail”, which we’re assuming is something rather grand, also somehow heroic?
We don’t have any more information about our original quotation: it was probably just something which zoomed past our eyes on the internet, or we heard someone say in passing on the radio. Applying a text from our list of epics, we thought about Hector, the son of Priam, the king of Troy, and the main hero on the Trojan side. The Iliad doesn’t have much to say about him for the previous 9 years, but he’s active in the current one although, even as the chief warrior on the Trojan side, he never appears to have faced the chief Greek warrior, Achilles, until their confrontation in Book 22. Here, Hector is ashamed to retreat, but acts as a kind of rear guard for the Trojans until he’s facing Achilles by himself.
And then everything goes wrong for him: he loses his nerve and Achilles chases him three times around the walls of Troy; he throws his spear, which bounces off Achilles’ shield; he thinks that his brother, Deiphobus, has come to help him, but it’s actually a hostile Athena masquerading; sword drawn, he charges and Achilles stabs him at the base of his throat; when he begs for a decent burial, Achilles says that the dogs and birds will eat his body. And, after he dies, all of the other Greeks gather around to stab his corpse (now they’re brave), then Achilles puts holes in Hector’s feet, runs a line through the holes, ties the line to the back of his chariot, and drags him around the walls of Troy while Hector’s wife and parents look on in horror.
If anything could be described as an “epic fail”, we would propose that it would be the combat with Achilles and the death of Hector. But was the comment we overheard or read about such a grim and dramatic event as to merit such a comparison?
And this is where another source comes in. The Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1857, when it comes to richness of source material, is a wonderful thing—we used it to find that reference to Puttenham. At the same time, to keep up-to-date on what’s going on in contemporary English, we often dip into Urban Dictionary. If you know this source, you know that some of those who contribute are often less than enthusiastic about other people’s word choices. So, to gain another viewpoint, we consulted Urban Dictionary and found, among other references:
“Epic Fail -A mistake of such monumental proportions that it requires its own term in order to successfully point out the unfathomable shortcomings of an individual or group.”
Not quite Homeric, but okay.
Then again, there was this:
“A word that used to be used to describe a book, a movie or other work as timeless, great, and meaningful. Is now used by [unprintable word: substitute “the less intelligent”] who combine it with “win” or “fail” to describe everyday things…
[unprintable word–substitute “speaker”] #1: I forgot my wallet so I had to go home and get it.
[same unprintable word: substitute “speaker] #2: EPIC FAIL!”
So, was what we saw or overheard, by its use of the expression, its own epic fail?
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
And know that
We found the reference to Puttenham in the Oxford English Dictionary (upon which JRRT was once engaged, in 1919-1920—here’s the LINK to a really interesting article on his work there: https://public.oed.com/blog/jrr-tolkien-and-the-oed/ ). If you’d like to see the Puttenham for yourself, here’s a LINK:
If nothing else, it’s very interesting to see just how much earlier English literature Puttenham had available to him in the 1580s.