Have You Been Using ‘Epiphany’ Wrong?


In a piece for the New Yorker titled “Laptop U,” Gregory Nagy, a professor of classical Greek literature at Harvard, told Nathan Heller—almost in passing:

I had this real revelation—I’m not saying ‘epiphany,’ because people use that word wrong, because an epiphany should be when a really miraculous superhuman personality appears, so this is just a revelation, not an epiphany.

Huh. So far I’ve used that word twice in my posts—in “Writing Is Meditation” and in “Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails“—and I assure you no spiritual apparition, holy or unholy, showed up to pass some profound heavenly wisdom onto me. If any, I probably would have fainted or would have been incapable of seeing it.

In my research for one of the blog posts above, I happened upon a succinct explanation of the Joycean epiphany written by Stefania Gioffrè. She seemed to use the meanings as contrasted by Nagy interchangeably (emphasis added):

I guess everybody is familiar with the old story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. […] At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is a moment of a sudden revelation.

She went on to say that James Joyce himself explicitly provides a definition (emphasis added):

James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation’ which may be provoked by ‘the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself,’ a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say.

As Stefania pointed out, the word “epiphany” etymologically comes from an ancient Greek word—and Nagy is a professor of classical Greek literature, so he should know, right?

What, then, is the correct definition? I suspect that, perhaps given Joyce’s influence on the English literature and linguistics, the word has undergone a semantic change and therefore, is no longer confined to its ancient Greek meaning. From Merriam-Webster:

Screen Shot 2013-06-15 at 15.22.46

But perhaps it’s not correct to attribute its semantic evolution entirely to Joyce. Can one of the English majors among you clarify?

Top image credit: Monica Arellano-Ongpin. Used under a Creative Commons license.


4 thoughts on “Have You Been Using ‘Epiphany’ Wrong?

  1. I read about this recently too and had an epipha….oh wait, revelation. I majored in Accounting so I can’t help you out on the correct definition of the word. I’ve always used it under the context of 3a above.

    • Haha. Thanks for reading, Melissa. Me, too. Maybe I should start using Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ instead. 😉

      Out of curiosity, Melissa, have you ever wished you had majored in English instead of Accounting? Because this thought frequently sneaks into my mind, even though I know full well that “regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in,” as Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal.

      • I don’t necessarily think regret is a bad thing and I find it a little irritating when someone says, “I have no regrets.” Really? Have you lived such a guarded life that you’ve risked nothing and cared for no one? Have you once ventured outside your door? Sure, regret is a deep desire to change events in the past, mistakes that you’ve made, and it’s pointless to dwell on them since the outcome can’t be changed but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. If you don’t have regrets then how will you ever grow as a person? I have regrets, lots of them, things I wish I didn’t say or do but I try to look at them constructively and determine what I should learn from the experience. Even though each mistake was painful at the time, looking back on them, I realize I have gained something from every wrong turn I have taken in my life.
        Once I discovered I wanted to be a writer, I thought about this question a great deal. Why hadn’t I chosen English as my major? I had a high school English teacher praise my writing. I placed out of a few English courses in college (although I don’t think that’s uncommon). A college professor asked to share a piece of my writing with future classes. I reluctantly agreed because I didn’t think it was very good and still don’t. I bought a book on how to write a novel shortly after I graduated college but never read it until a couple of years ago. I took countless personality tests (I’m an INFP, but sometimes the results showed INFJ) and “writer” was always listed as a career I should pursue. There were so many signs pointing me in the direction of writing, why did it take me so damn long to figure it out?
        I ignored those signs because I doubted my abilities. Doubt: she is a bitch and will try to beat me down on a regular basis but now I have the strength to punch back. I think of the person I was then and I don’t think I had the confidence to persevere in this line of work. The twenty years I spent in the corporate world, climbing that ladder, dealing with office politics, managing people and the demands of my position changed me tremendously. I grew in confidence and developed a pretty thick skin. When the thought of writing a story popped in my head (as it had countless times over the years), and Doubt started in with “Me? Write a story? Don’t be silly,” this time I was prepared and responded with, “Why the hell not?”
        After writing that first story I had my epiphany. The use of the word seems appropriate here since it practically took a miracle for me to see it. I was meant to be a writer.

        I apologize for the long post, Daniel, but as usual, you’ve got me expressing deep thoughts 🙂

  2. Pingback: Conversations, Entry #1: Has Regret Helped You Grow as a Writer? | sairyou.me

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