The words ‘epitaph’ and ‘epithet’ can look very similar. This is because they both have a similar prefix and the root words do look like each other. Their meanings are not all that dissimilar either, as they are both related to speaking about other people.
The prefix in both words is the Greek word ‘epi’. While it means a number of things, the ones most commonly found in English are the meanings of ‘on’, ‘over’, and ‘upon’. This can be found in a few words: ‘epicenter’ or ‘over the center’; ‘epidemic’ or ‘upon the people’, used to mean a widespread disease; or ‘epinephrine’, another word for adrenaline, which means ‘on the kidneys’, which are the organs that produce adrenaline.
‘Epitaph’ is the combination of ‘epi’ with the word ‘taphos’, which means ‘tomb’, to create the meaning ‘upon the tomb’. This resulted in ‘epitaphios’, which means ‘related to a funeral’. It got borrowed into Latin as the word ‘epitaphium’, meaning a eulogy – which is a speech given at a funeral – and then into French and finally English.
An epitaph, as a noun, can mean one of two things. Firstly, it can be an inscription written on a tombstone. These are usually placed there to commemorate the dead with one of their favorite sayings or something that otherwise fits them. Secondly, it can be another type of short piece of writing – such as a poem or an obituary, which is a brief notice of death or biography – that is meant to commemorate them, but is not placed on the grave marker.
As a verb, it is the act of making an epitaph, whether writing one down, inscribing it into a tombstone, or speaking it aloud. Because of the last meaning, this can also mean making a eulogy, though the more common word used in that case would be ‘eulogize’ in US English or ‘eulogise’ in UK or Commonwealth English.
The word ‘epithet’ comes from the prefix ‘epi’ added on to the word ‘tithenai’, which was a verb that meant ‘to put’, resulting in ‘to put on’. This resulted in the word ‘epithetos’, meaning ‘added’ or ‘attributed’. This was borrowed into Latin as the word ‘epitheton’, which was the word for ‘adjective’. From there, it also went on to French and then to English.
An epithet is a descriptive term used to characterize something, usually as a substitute for a name. A nickname could be one example, as they are typically either a shorter form of the person’s name or something that describes them based on one characteristic. The latter, a description, would be an epithet. As well, a term of endearment like ‘my love’ or ‘honey’ would most likely fit under that category. An adjective added to the end of a name, such as Catherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible, would also be an epithet.
However, the meaning that can be seen most often today is the meaning of an insult, especially one that applies to an entire category, such as a racist or sexist term. Not all uses of ‘epithet’ are used to describe insults, but it is more common to use other words. A nickname would be the word used most often when it is positive – though nicknames can be derogatory – and negative uses would be most likely described as insults or slurs.
To summarize, both words use the Greek word ‘epi’, which means ‘upon’. An epitaph is a piece of writing that is used to commemorate the dead, most often placed on the grave marker but sometimes in another location. An epithet is a descriptive alternate name for something, which is often used as a negative description but not always.