Epitome. Funny little word. Comes to us from Greek via Latin. Via comes to us via Latin, too. Does the English language have any words that aren’t nicked from some other language? I suppose it does, but even some of those seem to be from older languages. My kingdom for a single word that is genuinely and originally from the English language! But I digress. Thanks to Latin, I’m able to do just that.
Anyway, epitome. From Latin, via the Greek word epitomē, which derived from epitemnein, meaning “abridge”, a conjunction of epi, meaning “in addition”, and temnein, meaning “to cut.” So, let’s see, “in addition to cut,” maybe “an additional cut,” abridgment, how did we get to where we are with today’s most prevalent meaning, a “perfect example of a particular quality or type?”
An earlier meaning was more akin to the Greek, a miniature representation of something. “I shall call him Epitome. No, wait, I shall call him Mini Me. Yes, that’s much better, Mini Me.” Sort of like a Reader’s Digest version of something.
Maybe our current meaning has something to do with our penchant for analogies and shorthand representations of more complex things. We came up with a meaning that allowed us to attribute all the qualities of one person or thing to another person or thing, sans all the messy listing of all the said qualities. A bit like the word like. Never mind that your list of qualities may be completely different than mine.
It’s easy to find synonyms for epitome. Embodiment, exemplar, archetype. It’s harder to find antonyms. Disembodiment? Nah. The word antithesis works, sort of. I’m sure there are others. I just don’t have time to find them. The epitome of lazy.
Pity the poor epitome
What is it he’s meant to be?
What we think is plain to see
Might not be the same to you and me