Epithet and Epitaph

Norman Rockwell's 1964 _Look_ Magazine cover, 1964.
Norman Rockwell’s 1964 _Look_ Magazine cover, 1964.

This post was prompted by the misuse of the word epitaph for epithet in a recent article at US Uncut News. I wondered how common this misuse might be, so I took to the Web.

When I did a search of the phrase “racial epitaph,” I got so few hits that I almost decided to let it go as a post, assuming that the misuse is limited to unprofessional bloggers.

But then I noticed that a disproportionate number of the examples came from sources that should know better.

An epithet is a descriptive term. In its broad sense, an epithet can be complimentary, but in current usage, the term is usually understood to be deliberately offensive.

An epitaph is an inscription on a tomb or gravestone.

Here are a few of the sources using epitaph where epithet is clearly the intended meaning:

Printed books
Arts Integration: Teaching Subject Matter Through the Arts in Multicultural Settings, Merryl Goldberg, Routledge, Jul 7, 2016.

In Rockwell’s painting of her, a six-year-old Ruby Bridges is in her white dress, white socks, and white shoes, holding a couple of books, a ruler, and some pencils. Four US marshals in suits overshadow her. Behind them are the remnants of a thrown tomato and a racial epitaph as graffiti scrawled on the the wall.

Sweetwater: A Biography of Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, Frank Foster, BookCaps Study Guides, Jul 7, 2014.

After one trip down the floor, where the ball had been jerked back and forth around his head, Harris let go with an elbow to Sweetwater’s midsection. He also used a racial epitaph about the style of play.

A Physician’s Journey with the Hepatitis C Virus: Historical, Medical and Ethical Reflections, Antal E. Sólyom, Xlibris Corporation, Aug 21, 2015.

[I]f anybody would try to re-label me using some “behavioral” term, I would take it as an insult akin to a racial or ethnic epitaph…

Faulkner and ideology, Donald M. Kartiganer, Ann J. Abadie, Univ Press of Mississippi, 1995 358 pages

Perhaps it is out of this sightlessness, this myopic vision turned now elsewhere to a space that Faulkner cannot occupy or invade, that Dilsey, in the constructed collectivity of a black race, endured. Read as a racial epitaph, the words “They endured,” function discursively to ascribe to a subsequent generation the traits and the proclivities of a Dilsey, but not necessarily the Dilsey of The Sound and the Fury.

Experiencing Racism: Exploring Discrimination Through the Eyes of College Students,
by Richard Seltzer (Ph. D.), Nicole E. Johnson, Lexington Books, 2009.

Tina was a white student at Villanova. When she was twelve, the coach of the opposing softball team yelled a racial epitaph at her black teammate’s parent.

Online reporting
The Star-Ledger (New Jersey), Ralph R. Ortega

The investigator used a racial epitaph, according to authorities, to describe Williams during a meeting at the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.

WTHN News 8 (Connecticut).
[A woman’s car was vandalized.]

“Move out” one reads on the driver’s side of her blue sedan. A racial epitaph for African Americans and the abbreviation for “you only live once” is on the other. (Connecticut).

ThinkProgress, “Michael Steele, Unplugged” by Alex Seitz-Wald
[This extract is from a list of examples intended to ridicule the gaffes of Michael Steele.]

Steele used the racial epitaph “honest Injun,” which a Native-American GOP congressman called “unacceptable.”  —January, 2010.


Boren has become the face of the school’s stand against racism after a highly visible and passionate condemnation of a video that appears to show Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members chanting a racial epitaph.

Government documents
Case report, United States Department of Labor, Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board, Kansas City, MO

Appellant also alleged that Ms. Malone treated light-skinned and dark-skinned employees differently.  At the hearing, her representative asserted that she was called a racial epitaph at work.

Department of State press briefing.

BURNS: I think I know what you’re referring to. This is when an ethnic epitaph was hurled at Ambassador Indyk. I believe he’s accepted an apology from the individual. I can check that for you. I won’t even repeat what the gentleman said – if I call him a gentleman.

Department of Defense study conducted at the University of Kansas

In the Team Room, rank is largely irrelevant if a team member needs “personality adjustment” from other members and any type of slang, profanity, sexual references, racial or ethnic epitaph, and the like are fair game and not to leave the room.

There’s no excuse for anyone who has graduated from high school to confuse the words epitaph and epithet. If at no other time, they would have learned the meaning of epitaph when they studied Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in high school.

Oh, wait! I’m forgetting about the rationale that has given us the Common Core Standards. High school English teachers probably don’t teach Gray’s Elegy anymore. It may have power to induce goosebumps and deep thinking in the reader, as well as build vocabulary, but poetry does not fit the category of “informational texts.”

Related links:

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Common Core and Literature