The Epic Erosion of the Meaning of ‘Epic’

At a grocery store last week, the cover of Cosmopolitan‘s January issue caught my eye with the headline “EPIC SEX.”

At a grocery store last week, the cover of Cosmopolitan‘s January issue caught my eye with the headline “EPIC SEX.” Immediately, in my head, I started imagining the scenario:

“… and that was after about two hours of this. So I untied him, and we cleaned up all the broken watermelons, put away the jumper cables and started to drive to the hospital. That’s when the car broke down. It was raining, and as I got out of the car, I dropped my phone in a puddle, so goodbye phone. Since we couldn’t call a cab, we just started walking. Finally, after a half-hour, someone stopped and gave us a ride. In the emergency room, the doctor looked at the X-rays and said ‘So how did you get a trophy stuck up there?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think I have to answer that; plus it’s a statue, not a trophy,” and he says, ‘No, it’s obviously a bowling trophy. I can see the guy’s hand here …'”

Of course, the Cosmo article was not about “epic” in the sense outdoorsfolk use it when describing mountain bike rides, ultramarathons, and long days of climbing and mountaineering. I assume Cosmo was just looking for another word to describe “improved” sex, which seems to be a monthly cover topic, based on my ongoing informal survey.

It appears that, despite warnings like Maddox’s “Not Everything Is Epic, Shitheads,” we’re changing the definition of the word, as we’ve done in the past with “gnarly,” “sick,” and, ahem, “radical.” Urban Dictionary now defines epic as “the most overused word ever.”

Fact: Beowulf is epic. “Epic poetry” is one of the original uses of the word. Hell, it takes most people a few days just to read Beowulf, which is pretty epic, compared to scrolling through my Facebook feed.

In its traditional use in mountaineering, epic was a noun, not an adjective – you had “an epic”: Broken bones, open bivies, nights of suffering, frostbite, chopped ropes, crevasse falls, people not knowing whether they’d make it back alive, rescues – you know, Ernest Shackleton and his crew surviving their Antarctic voyage. Joe Simpson crawling three days back to camp with a broken leg. Aron Ralston. Now, it’s pretty much everything, isn’t it?

A hashtag search for #epic on Instagram the other day found 1.6 million photos, including the following epic things:

  • A guy’s shirtless self-portrait
  • Two photos of people playing Jenga
  • A labradoodle puppy eating a hair tie
  • A photo of a limo on New Year’s Eve
  • A 7-year-old kid doing a cannonball into a pool in Bryan, Texas
  • A photo of Someday by Justin Bieber perfume

I used to pride myself on never having had an epic. Sure, I’ve had plenty of long days, but nothing where I didn’t think I was going to live. Maybe have to survive a night out with no shelter, or spend the next three days not walking, or stay moving for 19 straight hours, but no broken legs on a climbing route, no getting lost in a whiteout, nothing like that.

The good news is, you no longer have to get your toes amputated, spend a night on a snowy peak without a sleeping bag, go without food or water for 48 hours, or drink your own urine to have an epic (although all those things are in themselves still epic). You can just play Jenga, or take a photo of yourself with your phone, or have a hangover. Or, as the aforementioned Cosmo article advises, you can “hook up like high schoolers,” “lead him on,” and/or “tease with a vengeance.” I am about to eat a burrito, which, if my math is correct, is basically the same thing as Beowulf. Or, to break it down:

Slaying Grendel + slaying Grendel’s mother + slaying dragon = burrito

Brendan Leonard is Semi-Rad.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
Showing 9 comments
  • Ethos Adventurer

    What a crazy evolution!? For what it’s worth, playing Jenga or going shirtless should never be enough to qualify as “epic.” We think it’s awesome when people are stoked on their outdoor experiences, trials, and tribulations though…so we are willing to forgive over use of the term when referring to a long and unforgettable day on the slopes, or plans gone awry, losing the trail, etc. But for non-adventurous day-to-day activity, let’s just stick with awesome.

  • Alex

    Haha! That last line of the article was particularly ep….funny.

  • Harry Mudgett

    Man, this piece is cool! I bet you thought I was going to say epic, didn’t you?

  • Liam

    I play Jenga while shirtless. They need to invent a new word to describe that.

  • Loonfeather

    Play Jenga naked. YOLO!

  • Andrew

    It is so true how the meaning of words gets watered down through overuse, trivializing their original intent. Dating myself a bit, the word of my generation was “awesome”. A word used in previous generations to describe things of God-like proportions or power, i.e. that hurricane had an awesome appearance, etc. Now awesome can refer to a cupcake just consumed or a episode of your favorite sit- com. Perhaps this maybe a symptom of a society that is hard to impress due to our ever increasing availability of video clips and ability to produce special effects. Sorry for the “epic” rant.

  • K

    I blame it on front range coloradoans(read texans, midwesterners and jersey folk) using it to describe every epic 2inch “dump” of “fresh powder”.

  • BBB

    “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
    C.S. Lewis

  • Kimberly Weninger

    Although not (dare I say it?) EPIC; still a truly delightful article!
    Love a good laugh in the morning; even if it entails spewing hot tea all over me!

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