Epic Malaise, Bro! How ‘epic’ lost its meaning — and what it means for the fate of humanity

by Ben Schreckinger

This past November, they held the sixth annual EPIC Summit in Toledo. As the name implies, it was “a day of career-enhancing training and networking.” Epic!Hubert_Maurer_-_Circe_und_Odysseus

Use of the word “epic” has exploded in recent years, but the incidence of actual epic things has not. Now, as likely as not, “epic” refers to the quotidian, the small, and the mundane Need proof? Take the actual first result in my Twitter search for #EpicFail: “Just realised I forgot to buy crumpets for breakfast in the morning….so no toasted buttery crumpets for me!! Boo! #epicfail.” Some of my friends work for a company called Epic Systems. It does health care IT. I’ve been eating at a food hall in Dublin that advertises its epic club sandwich. It’s no wonder the top definition of epic on Urban Dictionary calls it “the most overused word ever… Everything is epic now.” Something has gone terribly wrong.

It’s past time to add “epic” to the sad list of words that have come to mean what they don’t mean. The Oxford English Dictionary caused an uproar this summer when the press discovered it had expanded its definition of “literally” to also mean figuratively — because that’s how people now use it. That redefinition was a defeat for language purists in their battle against sloppy usage. But the bastardization of epic signals something far graver: the inescapable malaise of post-industrial existence.

The world of the true epic is one of famine and feast, terrifying monsters and awesome deities. It conveys the mysteries of the wild unknown and the joy of emerging from it to rediscover the comforts of hearth and home. The epic’s grand scale reflects the awe with which its characters view a world whose grandeur they can’t contemplate. In other words, the world of the epic is the opposite of New York City, where the diners stay open 24 hours and the drug dealers deliver. The epic hero is the opposite of the modern knowledge worker, for whom the closest thing to an existential struggle is a battle for market share. After the sack of Troy, Odysseus was lost for 20 years before he returned home to Ithaka. Now we have GPS. It’s hard to imagine The Odyssey with iPhones.

Odysseus: Hey babe, I totally killed the presentation enemy today. Looks like I’ll be home late though. Google Maps is showing some traffic on the Aegean.

Penelope: Pls hurry! These suitors are making me nervous.

Odysseus: Umm, uninstall Tinder? LOL.

There’s not much room for King Arthur in 2013 either. “Lancelot, will you join me in the glorious quest for the Holy Grail?”

“It’s called Amazon Prime, bro. That shit will be here Tuesday.”

The smothering embrace of civilization, with its order and stability, has long constricted the scale of the epic. James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922,takes place within Dublin in the span of a day. And yet it’s in recent years, as technology and consumer culture have conspired to ensure the ever-more-complete fulfillment of our desires that the word epic has worked its way into the everyday vernacular. The prevalence of the word in Google searches has been on the rise since 2004, as long as the search giant’s tracked terms. By early 2010, it was showing up in searches roughly twice as frequently as it had been in 2005. That summer, usage spiked further (and Samsung released its “Epic 4G” smartphone). It hasn’t come down since.

Marketers have caught on. 2011 saw the birth “Epic Deli” in Illinois and “Epic Rollertainment” in California, to name just two especially epic businesses. This year has given us “Epic Leadership” whose URL, EpicEra.com, says it all. The business provides a path for disciples to progress from “hero” to “legend” and beyond by, of course, racking up direct sales of coffee and “essential oils.”

Ironically, it’s our sense of alienation from the truly epic that’s made it the buzzword du jour. The application of the label “epic” is borne of a desire to add scale and meaning — a reaction to the creeping feeling that our lives may be small and trivial. And if marketers are good at anything, it’s sniffing out our deepest insecurities.

It’s no coincidence that as the use of “epic” has risen at the same time that marketers have begun aggressively asserting the manliness of their products. The male under-40 American knowledge worker doesn’t go out and hunt to feed his family. He doesn’t fight hand-to-hand to protect them. He’s no longer the sole breadwinner, and he doesn’t even fix things when they break anymore He’s left with little opportunity to do the things that define male-ness. This is why hipsters have to grow beards. And it’s why Dr. Pepper advertises its diet soda with the slogan, “It’s not for women.” The adman doth protest too much. The Most Interesting Man in the World is the Most Sucessful Ad Campaign in the World because he’s manly, and he does epic things. Drinking Dos Equis can restore your balls and vanish your existential angst.

Sure, the slipping meaning of epic isn’t the first sign that post-industrial life leave something to be desired. Back in 1929, Sigmund Freud was arguing, in Civilization and its Discontents, that civilization fundamentally disagrees with our constitutions. And people in Manhattan probably aren’t all that eager to give up their lifestyles for a return to the Bronze Age. But when we’re calling holiday vodka recipes “epic,” we’ve got to be close to some sort of tipping point.

So what does it all mean? Basically, a lot of bored people need some more excitement and adventure in their lives. And they’d probably be willing to sacrifice some security and stability to get it. In the meantime, you should try to reserve your use of the word for things that truly deserve it, like this video of Jean Claude Van Damme doing a split between two moving Volvo trucks:

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