What is an Epigram? Definition and Examples of Epigrams

Definition of epigram: An epigram is a brief or short poem or statement that is a message in and of itself, often in a witty or clever way.

What Does Epigram Mean?

What’s an epigram? Epigrams are short poems or statements that are brief messages in and of themselves. These messages are often witty or humorous in nature.

Here are some examples of epigrams written by Oscar Wilde, who is well known for composing such poetry.

Epigram Examples:

  • We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
  • Experience is the name that everyone gives to their mistakes.

Modern Examples of Epigram

define epigram in literatureMany speakers include epigrams in speeches in order to create a lasting impact on the audience:

  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This epigram was from John F. Kennedy’s speech in order to convey the message of patriotism.

Mohandas Ghandi wrote this epigram to convey his philosophy regarding violence:

  • “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

The Function of an Epigram

Epigrams are used to convey a brief message in a sharp or witty manner. These messages are often in the form of a verse so that they carry a rhythm to them.

People may want to use epigrams when addressing a group of people in order to convey a lasting message or thought. These are common in speeches, lectures, debates, as well as written prose.

Because these statements are sharp and witty in nature, they are easily memorable.

Epigram Examples in Literature

what is a epigramOscar Wilde uses epigrams throughout his play The Importance of Being Earnest:

  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

This epigram is a witty statement about women turning out like their mothers, for better or worse, and men not retaining any of their mothers’ positive traits.

William Shakespeare also uses epigrams in his play Hamlet:

  • To be or not to be, that is the question.

This epigram is said by Hamlet himself during his famous soliloquy that explores life and death.

Related Term: Aphorism

epigram examplesEpigrams are closely related to aphorisms, which are statements that reveal a truth or moral principle.

While epigrams offer a message, they are more witty or humorous in nature. Aphorisms tend to hold more truth to them.

Here is an example of aphorism from Forrest Gump:

  • Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.

While there is still wit in this line, it holds a universal truth in the message that is not as opinionated as an epigram would be: life is unpredictable. This would fit more into the category of aphorism.

Summary: What Are Epigrams?

Define epigram: An epigram is a witty or humorous statement or verse that offers a message about life.

Here is a final example of an epigram:

  • All these financial takeovers and things— it’s just like Monopoly.

In John Lennon’s famous epigram, he offers his witty comment regarding business.