The HyperTexts

Examples of Epigrams: the Best Epigrams of All Time

Examples: The examples of epigrams below are among the best of all time, in one person's opinion. The examples are followed by a definition and brief history of the epigram form, after which more examples of the various genres and sub-genres of epigrams are presented.

Never tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon.—Unknown
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.—Eleanor Roosevelt
If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.—Catherine the Great
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.—Albert Camus
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.—Eleanor Roosevelt
Warmthless beauty attracts but does not hold us; it floats like hookless bait.—Capito, translation by Michael R. Burch
Little sparks may ignite great Infernos.—Dante, translation by Michael R. Burch
If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and his impersonators would be dead!—Johnny Carson
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.—Oscar Wilde
A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married.—H. L. Mencken
To err is human, but it feels divine.—Mae West
I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I'm not dumb, and also I'm not blonde.—Dolly Parton
It takes a smart brunette to play a dumb blonde.—Marilyn Monroe
For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.—Virginia Woolf
An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.—Mohandas Gandhi
Truths are more likely discovered by one man than nations.—Renι Descartes, translation by Michael R. Burch
Love distills the eyes’ desires, love bewitches the heart with its grace.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
The danger is not aiming too high and missing, but aiming too low and hitting the mark.—Michelangelo, translation by Michael R. Burch
Nothing enables authority like silence.—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
My objective is not to side with the majority, but to avoid the ranks of the insane.—Marcus Aurelius, translation by Michael R. Burch
Truths are more likely discovered by one man than by nations.—Renι Descartes, translation by Michael R. Burch
Elevate your words, not their volume. Rain grows flowers, not thunder.—Rumi, translation by Michael R. Burch
A man may attempt to burnish pure gold, but who can think to improve on his mother?—Gandhi, translation by Michael R. Burch
The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall!—Mitch Hedberg
He does not believe, who does not live according to his belief.—Sigmund Freud

Definition: An epigram is a brief, pithy, memorable statement which is often (but not necessarily) ironic, satirical, humorous and/or clever. Terms commonly used to describe epigrams include: ingenious, witty, pointed, terse, concise, cutting, scathing and paradoxical. But epigrams can also be wonderfully warm, wise and tender. One might argue with some of the dictionary definitions and say the term "epigram" has come to simply mean a brief, impactful statement. That has become my personal definition. — Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

History: Epigrams go back to the ancient Greeks and the first great lyric poet we know by name, Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630-570 BC). You're welcome to share my translations if you like them, but please be sure to credit the original poet and the translator (which you can do by copying the credit that follows each epigram).

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.
—Sappho, fragment 42, translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!
—Sappho, fragment 155, translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.
—Sappho, fragment 156, translation by Michael R. Burch

Related Pages: The Greatest Epigrammatists, An Extensive Collection of Epigrams by Michael R. Burch

Types of Epigrams: Adage, anecdote, antic, aphorism, apophthegm, axiom, banter, bon mot, boondoggle, buffoonery, burlesque, buzzword, byword, caper, caprice, catchphrase, chestnut, chiasmus, clowning, commonplace, couplet, daffodil, dictum, doggerel, double entendre, drollery, elegiac couplet, elegy, encomium, enthymeme, epitaph, epithet, equivoque, escapade, farce, folk wisdom, formula, frolic, gag, gambol, game, gnome, ha-ha, haiku, heroic couplet, hillbilly humor, homily, hoodwink, horseplay, humorous verse, jape, jargon, jest, jibe, jig, jingle, joke, lampoon, lark, laugh, leg-pulling, light verse, limerick, maxim, mischief, monkeyshines, moral, moralism, motto, mummery, one-liner, parody, payoff, platitude, play, pleasantry, prank, precept, preface, proverb, pun, put-on, quote, quip, quirk, raillery, rallying cry, repartee, revel, rib, ribbing, riddle, riposte, rule, rule of thumb, sally, saw, saying, sententia, sentiment, sermon, shenanigan, shibboleth, slogan, snow job, spoonerism, sport, spree, stunt, syllogism, tomfoolery, trick, truism, tweet, twist, vagary, waggery, war cry, watchword , wisecrack, whimsy, wisdom saying, witticism, words of wisdom, word-play, yarn, zinger

Diversity: Epigrams can be wonderfully diverse, ranging from morals and proverbs to quips and quirks. For instance, the stand-up comedian's one-liner is a modern form of epigram. Here are current examples of the genre:

If Donald Trump gets elected, there'll be hell toupιe.—Anonymous
Donald Trump showed his birth certificate to reporters. Who cares about his birth certificate? I want to know if that thing on his head has had its vaccinations.―Craig Ferguson
Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly and carried a big stick; Donald Trump speaks loudly and carries a big shtick.—Michael R. Burch

Exemplars: The great epigrammatists include Woody Allen, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Yogi Berra, William Blake, Lenny Bruce, Buddha, Johnny Carson, George Carlin, Winston Churchill, Dante, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Bob Hope, Jesus, JFK, MLK, Abraham Lincoln, Martial, Groucho Marx, Michelangelo, Mohammed, Marilyn Monroe, Napoleon, Plato, Dorothy Parker, Dolly Parton, Will Rogers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sappho, Shakespeare, Socrates, Mark Twain, Mother Teresa, Voltaire, Mae West, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.

Brief Examples of the Exemplars:

• Raise your words, not their volume. Rain grows flowers, not thunder.—Rumi, translation by Michael R. Burch
• No wind is favorable to the man who lacks direction.—Seneca the Younger, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Little sparks ignite great flames.—Dante, translation by Michael R. Burch
• You can crop all the flowers but you cannot detain spring.—Pablo Neruda, translation by Michael R. Burch
• The danger is not aiming too high and missing, but aiming too low and hitting the mark.—Michelangelo, translation by Michael R. Burch
• He who follows will never surpass.—Michelangelo, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Nothing enables authority like silence.—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• My objective is not to side with the majority, but to avoid the ranks of the insane.—Marcus Aurelius, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Blinding ignorance misleads us. Myopic mortals, open your eyes!—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• It is easier to oppose evil from the beginning than at the end.—Leonardo da Vinci, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Fools call wisdom foolishness.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• A man may attempt to burnish pure gold, but who can think to improve on his mother?—Mahatma Gandhi, translation by Michael R. Burch
• One true friend is worth ten thousand kin.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Not to speak one’s mind is slavery.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• I would rather die standing than kneel, a slave.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Fresh tears are wasted on old griefs.—Euripides, translation by Michael R. Burch 
• Improve yourself by other men's writings, attaining less painfully what they gained through great difficulty.—Socrates, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Hypocrisy may deceive the most perceptive adult, but the dullest child recognizes and is revolted by it, however ingeniously disguised.—Leo Tolstoy, translation by Michael R. Burch
• Just as I select a ship when it's time to travel, or a house when it's time to change residences, even so I will choose when it's time to depart from life.―Seneca, speaking about the right to euthanasia in the first century AD, translation by Michael R. Burch

Length: Most epigrams are short in length, but there is no precise word limit. Here is a longish epigram by an American war hero and president:

If by a Liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the peopletheir health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil libertiessomeone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a Liberal, then I'm proud to say I'm a Liberal.John F. Kennedy

History: We can trace the epigram back at least 2,500 years, to the ancient Greeks. The earliest Greek epigrams were poems, usually brief, inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries and on headstones (i.e., epitaphs) and other funerary monuments. Our main extant source of ancient Greek epigrams is the Greek Anthology (also called the Anthologia Graeca), which was compiled from two earlier manuscripts: the Palatine Anthology of the 10th century and the Anthology of Planudes (or Planudean Anthology) of the 14th century. According to J. W. Mackail, editor of Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, "The Greek word 'epigram' in its original meaning is precisely equivalent to the Latin word 'inscription' and it probably came into use in this sense at a very early period of Greek history, anterior even to the invention of prose. Inscriptions at that time, if they went beyond a mere name or set of names, or perhaps the bare statement of a single fact, were necessarily in verse, then the single vehicle of organised expression."

In other words, the first epigrams were poems that were inscribed on things such as gravestones and monuments.

Why poetry? According to Mackail: "Even after prose was in use, an obvious propriety remained in the metrical form as being at once more striking and more easily retained in the memory; while in the case of epitaphs and dedications—for the earlier epigram falls almost entirely under these two heads—religious feeling and a sense of what was due to ancient custom aided the continuance of the old tradition."

Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC) quoted epigrams of both kinds in his History; at the time he wrote the word epigramma was just beginning to acquire its current literary denotation. He quoted inscriptions found at the temple of Apollo at Thebes and on funeral monuments at Thermopylae, where the Greeks, led by a contingent of valorous Spartans, famously held off a much larger Persian army at the "Hot Gates." The most famous of the Thermopylae inscriptions is the one attributed to Simonides. Here is my modern English translation or "interpretation" of his celebrated epigram:

tell the Spartans we lie
lifeless at Thermopylae:
Dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Simonides translation by Michael R. Burch

Simonides (c. 556-467 BC) was considered by many to be the most eminent of the Greek lyric poets, although Sappho is better known today. Mackail says of him: "Beyond the point to which Simonides brought it the epigram never rose. In him there is complete ease of workmanship and mastery of form together with the noble and severe simplicity which later poetry lost. His dedications retain something of the antique stiffness; but his magnificent epitaphs are among our most precious inheritances from the greatest thought and art of Greece."

Here is my "take" on an inscription that has been attributed to Simonides:

These men earned a crown of imperishable glory,
nor did the maelstrom of death obscure their story.
—Simonides translation by Michael R. Burch

One of the best and most famous lyric poets of antiquity (or of any era) was a woman, Sappho. She was born on the island of Lesbos, circa 630 BC. According to the Parian Marble, she was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594, while Cicero mentioned that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse. "She is a mortal marvel," wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog the Seven Wonders of the World. As J. B. Hare, one of her translators, said: "Sappho the poet was an innovator. At the time poetry was principally used in ceremonial contexts, and to extoll the deeds of brave soldiers. Sappho had the audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions, particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before her. As for the military angle, in one of the longer fragments (#3) she says: 'Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved.' In the ancient world she was considered to be on an equal footing with Homer, acclaimed as the 'tenth muse.'"

Anacreon (c. 582-485 BC) was a Greek lyric poet renowned for his drinking songs and hymns. Later Greeks included him in the canonical list of nine lyric poets. Here is my translation of an epigram that has been attributed to him:

He lies in state tonight: great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not, neither does War relent.
—Anacreon, translation by Michael R. Burch

Many of the earliest and best epigrams are couplets, although some of the best ancient epigrams have up to six or eight lines. Mackail provides us with this excellent definition of the epigram: "In brief then, the epigram in its first intention may be described as a very short poem summing up as though in a memorial inscription what it is desired to make permanently memorable in any action or situation. It must have the compression and conciseness of a real inscription, and in proportion to the smallness of its bulk must be highly finished, evenly balanced, simple, and lucid. In literature it holds something of the same place as is held in art by an engraved gem. But if the definition of the epigram is only fixed thus, it is difficult to exclude almost any very short poem that conforms externally to this standard ..."

Here is my translation of an epigram that has been attributed to Plato (c. 424-347 BC):

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
—Plato, translation by Michael R. Burch

I love the wisdom and spirit of Hafiz in this subversive (pardon the pun) little poem. I can see Trump putting refugees in cages, while Hafiz goes around letting them out for a moondance!

The imbecile constructs cages for everyone he knows,
while the sage (who has to duck his head whenever the moon glows)
keeps dispensing keys all night long
to the beautiful, rowdy, prison gang.
—Hafiz, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The way we think of epigrams has changed over time. Today, according to the Wikipedia article on epigrams, we tend to "think of epigram as having a 'point'that is, the poem ends in a punchline or satirical twist. [But] by no means do all Greek epigrams behave this way; many are simply descriptive. We associate [the] epigram with [a] 'point' because the European epigram tradition takes the Latin poet Martial as its principal model; he copied and adapted Greek models (particularly the contemporary poets Lucillius and Nicarchus) selectively and in the process redefined the genre, aligning it with the indigenous Roman tradition of 'satura', hexameter satire, as practised by (among others) his contemporary Juvenal. Greek epigrams [were] actually much more diverse, as [indicated by] the Milan Papyrus."

For example, many of the epigrams in the Greek Anthology are sad and/or tender love poems.

According to Wikipedia, Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as Martial, was born circa 38 AD and died circa 104 AD. He was a Latin poet from Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) who wrote twelve books of epigrams, published during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. His epigrams tend to be short, witty affairs in which he cheerfully satirizes Roman-era city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances. He wrote a total of 1,561 poems, of which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. He is generally considered to be the creator of the modern epigram. Here are a few of my favorite Martial epigrams:

There is no glory in outstripping donkeys.—Marcus Valerius Martial

Lie lightly on her, turf and dew ...
She put so little weight on you.
—Marcus Valerius Martial

You ask me why I've sent you no new verses?
There might be reverses.
—Martial, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Readers and listeners praise my books;
You swear they're worse than a beginner's.
Who cares? I always plan my dinners
To please the diners, not the cooks.
—Marcus Valerius Martial, translated by R. L. Barth

While Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors, they are often more satirical, and sometimes employ obscene language. Latin epigrams could take the form of graffiti, such as this one found at Pompeii (circa AD 79):

I'm astonished, wall, that you haven't collapsed into ruins,
since you're holding up the weary verse of so many poets.

Since Martial and other Roman poets adopted and adapted epigrams for their own purposes, the form has continued to evolve. Today most epigrams are prose rather than poetry, and include:

The Tweet

The Tweet is a popular new form of epigram. Here's my favorite Tweet to date:

The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight.—Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Giffords is the Arizona congresswoman who was shot and nearly killed. While so many other American politicians rage and imagine vain things, I find her words wonderfully touching and encouraging. Reading her poetic Tweet, I can actually see our nation's Capitol lit up at night, shining like a beacon, and feel her sincerity. How many senators and congressmen are humble enough to feel honored to work for their country, I wonder? In any case, I'm glad to have Gabby back, and to know that she's not only recovering from her injuries, but wants to help her country recover from its own deep-seated (albeit self-inflicted) wounds. I only hope that other Americans will exhibit some of her grace under fire. After all, if she pulled through her harrowing ordeal, so can we as a nation, if only we emulate her courage and resolve. And as I write this, I am reminded of Gabby's favorite epigram, which appears on her Facebook page:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.—Abraham Lincoln

The Pun, or Word-Play

The ballot is stronger than the bullet.—Abraham Lincoln
Your children need your presence more than your presents.—Jesse Jackson
Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.—Ernest Dowson, a pun on "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

A pun is defined as: "A joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings."


If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.—Catherine the Great
As blushing may make a whore seem virtuous, so modesty may make a fool seem sensible.—Jonathan Swift

Catherine the Great’s epigram is a stellar example of raillery, which has been defined as "light, teasing banter," "gentle mockery" and "good-humored satire or ridicule." It is also an example of drollery: something whimsically comical. Raillery can be both wonderfully funny, and wonderfully effective. Here's a bit of rather gentle raillery of my own, called "Saving Graces":

Life’s saving graces are love, pleasure, laughter ...
wisdom, it seems, is for the Hereafter.
—Michael R. Burch

My epigram is dedicated to Christians who claim they'll inherit heaven at the expense of everyone else.

Here is an example of political raillery:

Joni Ernst is an “onion of crazy.”Debbie Wasserman-Schultz


Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum from raillery would be waggery (the wisecrack, the bald-faced jest, the ribald joke which is sexual, excretory or somehow offensive, to someone):

A man who says he can see through a woman is missing a lot.—Groucho Marx
A man's only as old as the woman he feels.—Groucho Marx

Another name for Marx's method is "the zinger," a potent form of the comedian's one-liner. The zinger requires upsetting the applecart of our polite polities. But there are many other "flavors" of epigrams ...

The Bon Mot

One of my favorite categories is best exemplified by the Divine Oscar Wilde, who upsets the applecart in an entirely different way:

Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.—Oscar Wilde

What a wickedly scathing line! This is a wonderful example of the bon mot ("good word"), the best way of saying something. There has never been a better critic of gossip, innuendo and scandal-mongering than Oscar Wilde (perhaps because so many prudes, busybodies and gossips considered him to be scandalous, when the real scandal was that they refused to mind their own business):

Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.—Oscar Wilde

Wilde is every moralist's worst nightmare, because he was wise in the ways of the world and human nature, while moralists are usually up to their eyeballs in hypocrisy. Centuries before Wilde, Aristotle proved the ancient Greeks could be scintillantly scathing:

Wit is educated insolence.—Aristotle

But epigrams can also be wonderfully touching and moving:

The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.
—Michel de Montaigne

If we are to have real peace in the world,
we shall have to begin with the children.
—Mohandas Gandhi

As an Israeli, I have come to understand:
there is no way to love Israel and reject a two-state peace,
no way to love Israel and reject Palestine.
—Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, Israel's most famous general

Epigrams can also be wise, and liberating:

It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before, to test your limits, to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.—Anaοs Nin

Shake off all fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.—Thomas Jefferson


Epigrams which convey truths or principles are called aphorisms:

An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half.—Karl Kraus
Certain brief sentences are peerless in their ability to give one the feeling that nothing remains to be said.—Jean Rostand
My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book.—Friedrich Nietzsche
Civility is the ability to disagree agreeably.—Michael R. Burch

The epigram is the simple, elegant black dress of literature; it leaves nearly everything bared and yet still temptingly open to the imagination. The best epigrammatists produce belle lettres ("beautiful letters" or "fine writing") en brief ("in brief"). But there is as much diversity among epigrammatists as there is in the sea. Take the one below from the master of relativity himself, Albert Einstein. Einstein, who was quite the ladies' man, was asked to explain relativity. He chose to describe the perception of time as an aspect of human nature and physical attraction:

Sit next to a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. Sit on a red-hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour. That's relativity!—Albert Einstein

The Limerick

Another popular form of the epigram is the limerick. Here's one that delves into the zanier aspects of relativity:

There once was a woman named Bright
who traveled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way
and came back the previous night!


Einstein's epigram might be assigned any of a number of sub-terms: leg-pulling, horseplay, whimsy, a monkeyshine . . . perhaps even a hoodwink, boondoggle or snow job (since the "relativity" being discussed has little to do with physics, but much to do with physiques, body chemistry and sex). Still, Einstein's epigram, whatever we choose to call it, contains considerable wisdom. But sometimes epigrams can be entirely for amusement, such as this one of mine. I call it "Nun Fun Undone":

are not for excesses!
—Michael R. Burch

An epigram like mine that is entirely for the sake of humor might earn sobriquets like: tomfoolery, buffoonery, mummery, a chestnut, a gag, a ha-ha, a jape, a jest, a lark, a rib, a sally, a quirk, a whim, a vagary.

The One-Liner

A similar form of epigram is the comic's one-liner, or quip. One of the most famous one-liners is:

Take my wife ... please!—Rodney Dangerfield, who "borrowed" it from Henny Youngman

The Chiasmus

Other types of epigrams also play on words. For instance the chiasmus repeats the same or very similar words in a different order:

It's not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it's the size of the fight in the dog.—Dwight D. Eisenhower
It's not the men in your life that count, it's the life in your men.—Mae West
I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.—Ronald Reagan

The Spoonerism

One of the more creative types of epigram is the spoonerism, a type of pun, or word-play. In effect, a spoonerism is an aural chiasmus: the sounds of words are reversed, rather than the same or similar words being reversed:

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy.
—Dorothy Parker


Then there is short light verse: poetry too un-serious about itself and its aims to assume literary airs. In its silliest and least "literary" forms, light verse is called doggerel. Masters of English light verse include Lord Byron (the author of "Don Juan") and my personal favorite, Ogden Nash:

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
in such a fix to be so fertile.
—Ogden Nash

The Anecdote

Another category of epigram is the anecdote, a brief account or narrative, often to make or stress an important point:

I came, I saw, I conquered.—Julius Caesar
I have not come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.—Brutus
Et tu, Brutι?—Julius Caesar

Epigrams in Unexpected Places

Epigrams can be found in every genre of writing. Here's one I love, by a sports columnist:

If you win, you’re colorful. If you lose, you’re incompetent.—David Climer


Then there are "dead serious" epigrams, called epitaphs. These are the inscriptions that appear on headstones or in obituaries and other tributes. Here's one of mine called "Epitaph for a Palestinian Child":

I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
—Michael R. Burch


Sometimes the lines blur. Here's an epitaph that is also a chiasmus, from the headstone of the famous boxer Jack Dempsey:

A gentle man and a gentleman.—Unknown

The epigram above is also an example of encomium (praise or eulogy). The opposite type of epigram, when offered as invective, is the epithet.


An epithet defines or characterizes someone or something. In Homer's day epithets were often complimentary. But today epithets are generally non-complimentary, if not insulting or downright offensive. Modern epithets often descend into derogatory slang and racial invective. But in the hands of a master epigrammatist like Will Rogers, they can still be sublime in effect:

An economist's guess is liable to be as good as anybody else's.—Will Rogers
Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.—Will Rogers
A fool and his money are soon elected.—Will Rogers

Literary critics can be champion insulters:

Ezra Pound “has taken all culture for his province, and is naturally a little provincial about it.”—Randall Jarrell
W. H. Auden has become “a rhetoric-mill grinding away at the bottom of Limbo."—Randall Jarrell
“After reading ‘Under Sirius,’ another poet is likely to feel, ‘Well, back to my greeting cards.’”—Randall Jarrell
“If poetry were nothing but texture, Dylan Thomas would be as good as any poet alive.”—Randall Jarrell

Adam Gopnik called Randall Jarrell the “best-equipped” American poetry critic of the past century and he may have been the “best quipped” as well.—Michael R. Burch

Political Epigrams

Political epigrams can be equally scathing, whether aimed at liberals, conservatives or politicians in general:

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.—Will Rogers
A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.—Groucho Marx
As a snow-drift is formed where there is a lull in the wind, so, one would say, where there is a lull of truth, an institution springs up.—Henry David Thoreau

Hillbilly Humor

A sub-genre of the epithet consists of racial, ethnic or cultural ribbing. Southerners often poke fun at themselves and their neighbors with "hillbilly humor":

You know you're a redneck if your family tree don't fork.—Unknown
You know you're a redneck if your cars sit on blocks and your house has wheels.—Unknown


Another genre of epigrams engages in parody and lampooning. Here's one I hope to someday include it in a book of poems to be titled Why I Left the Religious Right:

I've got Jesus's name on a wallet insert
and "Hell is for Queers" on the back of my shirt
and I uphold the Law,
for grace has a flaw:
the Church must have someone to drag through the dirt.
—Michael R. Burch


Yet another class of epigram (although one that is generally less entertaining) has any number of names. Let's begin with "proverb" and a famous illustration by one of the world's best-known epigrammatists:

Early to bed, early to rise
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
—Ben Franklin

Miguel de Cervantes defined a proverb as "a short sentence based on long experience." There are, it seems, a bazillion other names for such bits of homey wisdom: adage, moral, homily, bromide, aphorism, apophthegm, axiom, dictum, maxim, motto, folk wisdom, platitude, precept, saw, saying, truism, catchphrase, formula, gnome, pithy saying, etc. But alas!, many proverbs are boring and some are untrue, to boot. How many men got up early every morning, were poor as dirt, and died early deaths? Surely multitudes! But many epigrams contain both vital wisdom and sparkling humor. Sometimes the epigram is the salvo a brilliant, battle-savvy cynic launches against human ignorance, intolerance, cruelty and insanity:

There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.—Mark Twain

To determine the truth of Twain's remark, just inquire with any black American slave, or any Native American who walked the Trail of Tears, or any Palestinian who's been herded inside the walled ghetto of Gaza and had the gates slammed shut in his face. None of them will praise the white man's self-avowed "democratic ideals" or his "Judeo-Christian ethics." If you don't agree with Twain, please be assured that he is the keener observer and savvier student of history and human nature. But if you read his epigrams, you may quickly close the gap! And I believe Einstein was in general agreement with Twain when he said:

I don't know what weapons will be used in World War III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.—Albert Einstein

One has only to be able to put two and two together, to understand why Twain's remark relates to Einstein's. If we don't understand why denying other people freedom, human rights and dignity will cause us to end up fighting with sticks and stones after a nuclear Armageddon ... well, we're just not as observant or wise as Twain and Einstein. But we certainly can't say they didn't warn us, as did an American president who was a master of the chiasmus:

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.—John F. Kennedy, Jr.

The history of such epigrams goes "way back" in time. In the 6th century B.C. the legendarily rich King Croesus of Lydia said:

In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.—Croesus

When we consider the expensive, bloody follies of the U.S. government in the Middle East, we can only wish American politicians had heeded Will Rogers:

If there is one thing that we do worse than any other nation, it is try and manage somebody else's affairs.—Will Rogers

And a great French essayist can explain why American freedoms seem to be vanishing:

The clatter of arms drowns out the voice of law.—Michel de Montaigne

Following in the same vein of questioning whether human beings are using their advanced brains to "think" when they do such things as wage war, here are two related epigrams by one of my favorite contemporary writers:

Thinking is often claimed but seldom proven.— T. Merrill
It must be hard being brilliant with no way to prove it.— T. Merrill

Have we remained savages, while only claiming to be an intelligent species? If we take a step back, open our eyes, look around, and see what man's most "advanced" civilizations are doing to homosexuals, Muslims and women and children on a daily basis . . . well, it's hard to credit the idea that we are actually "thinking." When I was a small boy, evangelical Christian adults informed me that just thinking about sex was "evil" (because Jesus said lust was the same as adultery) and that all adulterers went to hell. Just imagine what happened when I reached puberty: it was a terrifying, soul-shattering experience. Years later, I learned that a place called "hell" was never mentioned in the Old Testament, the epistles of Paul (the earliest-written Christian texts) or the book of Acts (ostensibly the self-recorded history of the early Christian church). The Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades clearly mean "the grave," not "hell." So the bizarre "hell" Christians use to terrorize and brainwash their own children was obviously a very late, very clumsy addition to the Bible. And yet millions of children continue to be tortured psychologically, emotionally and spiritually because "hell" is very good for church business. Mark Twain discovered what I discovered, and said:

I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble.—Mark Twain

The great epigrammatists often arise from the ranks of the disaffected and oppressed. Oscar Wilde, the greatest epigrammatist of them all, served time in Reading Gaol for "indecency" (he had the temerity to be flamboyantly gay). Twain wrote volumes exposing and expounding on the massive illogic of orthodox Christianity (he had the temerity to be a heretic, but had to hold up the publication of his anti-Christian opus Letters from the Earth for fifty years after his death, in order to protect his family from fire-breathing Christian fundamentalists). Einstein produced many of his epigrams against the backdrop of Nazi Germany (he had the temerity to be a brilliant, outspoken Jew). Today many of our best epigrammatists are women who combine sharp minds with even sharper tongues:

Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.—Maryon Pearson
A male gynecologist is like an auto mechanic who never owned a car.—Carrie Snow
The phrase "working mother" is redundant.—Jane Sellman
If high heels were so wonderful, men would still be wearing them.—Sue Grafton
If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.—Margaret Thatcher
Grace Kelly did everything Fred Astaire did: walking backwards, in high heels!—Unknown

Here's a similar epigram that I absolutely love, although it creates something of a dichotomy:

When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another country.—Elayne Boosler

Female politicians like Margaret Thatcher may be somewhat at odds (or loose ends) with female comedians like Elayne Boosler, since Thatcher wasn't above an invasion herself (of the Falkland Islands). But Boosler hammers the human funnybone nonetheless. She doesn't have to be perfect, just witty and succinct enough to make us blink, then think.

The stupendous epigrams above prove women's brains are every bit as good as men's, as they extract Eve's revenge at the expense of men's prehistoric prejudices. Here's my favorite epigram in this genre:

Whatever women must do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.—Charlotte Whitton

A great female epigrammatist can use her razor-sharp wit to deflate bigotry:

I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I'm not dumb, and also I'm not blonde.—Dolly Parton

Has anyone ever made a better case for the combinatory advantages of brains, wigs and peroxide? (I will refrain from mentioning Dolly's other, even more glamorous advantages.)

Socrates suggested that we define our terms, so for my purposes here I will use the primary term "epigram" and define it with Webster as a "terse, sage or witty and often paradoxical saying." Paradox can be both enlightening and amusing. Here's a stellar example by a contemporary writer:

Nowadays we make quick work of our courtships; it's our divorces that we spend a lot of time on.—Richard Moore

Paradoxical, indeed! But some epigrams are so paradoxical they seem to be best taken for purposes of amusement and bemusement only:

You can observe a lot just by watching.—Yogi Berra
There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em.—Yogi Berra
Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.—Yogi Berra
The future ain't what it used to be.—Yogi Berra
I didn't really say all the things I said.—Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra was the absolute master of the malapropism and the "accidental" or "unintended" paradoxical statement.

To give us the most possible good material to work with, I will construe the term "epigram" to include one-liners, zingers, spoonerisms, witticisms, aphorisms, saws, pithy sayings, epitaphs, epithets, proverbs, doggerel, the chiasmus (I decline to use the strange plural: chiasmi), brief quotes, short poems, hillbilly humor, maxims, truisms, the wisdom of the ages, etc. I will take as my motto and my guiding light:

Brevity is the soul of wit.—William Shakespeare

One takes one's literary life into one's own hands when one attempts to go beyond the Masters, but then again "nothing ventured, nothing gained" (an epigram and a perfectly good truism), so please allow me to suggest that:

If brevity is the soul of wit
then brevity and levity
are the whole of it.
—Michael R. Burch

But then a good epigrammatist won't let us wriggle easily off the hook of a quick assumption:

Brevity is the soul of lingerie.—Dorothy Parker

The great epigrammatists will invariably do one of two things: they will either amuse and bemuse us into wisdom, or they will scathe us into wisdom. Let me give some quick examples to illustrate what I mean, before we launch this Enterprise off for the stars, to battle the Klingons (pun on "cling-ons"):

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.—Unknown

To be safe on the Fourth,
Don't buy a fifth on the third.
—James H Muehlbauer

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy.
—Dorothy Parker

The epigrams above certainly amuse and bemuse, and while most people are unlikely to heed them, they point out the perils of drinking too much: the loss of brain cells, hangovers, fireworks that explode in our hands, etc. Other epigrams may be less overtly funny, but still entertaining and enlightening:

I can resist everything except temptation.—Oscar Wilde
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.—Oscar Wilde
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.—William Blake
There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.—Mark Twain
To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it.—Michel de Montaigne
Must I do all the evil I can before I learn to shun it? Is it not enough to know the evil to shun it? If not, we should be sincere enough to admit that we love evil too well to give it up.—Mohandas Gandhi

What some of the world's greatest writers and wits seem to be telling us, if I apprehend them correctly, is that orthodox morality is dubious at best, if it is morality at all. The great wits listen to sermons about sex being a "sin" and roll their eyeballs toward the heavens, then write scathing epigrams as a way of possibly curing man of his folly. They know the preacher who lectures his flock on the "evils" of sex is just as randy as the rest of them, and probably less inhibited (unless he's a septuagenarian and his hormones have "petered" out, pun intended). Wilde, Blake and Twain understood human nature and were honest about it, and themselves. Twain pointed out that any red-blooded man would give up any possible shot at heaven for a few blissful seconds with the Eve of his dreams. Anyone who claims the Holy Spirit cures human beings of sexual desire is obviously wrong, because human sexuality is not a "disease." But I digress ...

One of my all-time favorite epigrams consists of this exchange of repartee between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor:

Lady Astor: "Winston, you're drunk!"
Winston Churchill: "But I shall be sober in the morning and you, madam, will still be ugly."
Lady Astor: "Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your tea."
Winston Churchill: "Madam, if I were your husband, I'd drink it."

But a good epigram can also be a call to action:

Discontent is the first necessity of progress.—Thomas Alva Edison

An epigram can also be a call to compassion, empathy and kindness:

Always be kinder than necessary,
for everyone you meet is fighting
some kind of battle.
—attributed to T.H. Thompson and John Watson

Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.—Native American proverb

Robert Frost, probably America's last major poet, said "poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom." I would like to paraphrase him, if I may, and say:

Epigrams delight us into wisdom.—Michael R. Burch

Which is not to say that they invariably make us happy! Below is my favorite among my own epigrams; it illustrates, perhaps, how much can be squeezed into a tight compartment while still leaving breathing room for "special effects" like meter, rhyme and alliteration:

If God
is good
half the Bible
is libel.
—Michael R. Burch

In brief, the epigram is the Harry Houdini of literature.

Related pages: The Greatest Epigrammatists, The Best Donald Trump Jokes, Tweets and Quotations, Is there a Republican War on Women?, The Best Poems about Mothers

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