Epitome

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The word epitome can give problems in two ways. Its meaning sometimes puzzles students; and its pronunciation can be a snare.

  • An epitome is an 'abridgement': a short version of something. It is often used to mean "the whole thing in a nutshell", or "the contents of [e.g. a book] reduced to their essence [e.g. in a paragraph]". Jesus gave an epitome of all his teaching when he answered the question "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" (Matt. 22: 36) by saying, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." In other words, Jesus was saying that all the teaching of the Jewish faith could be summarised in just two commandments.
    • Epitome is sometimes used to mean 'an embodiment - a perfect example of a bigger class of things or people: "He is the very epitome of an English gentleman"; "Twelfth Night is the very epitome of Shakespearean comedy." It is often used in the formula 'the very epitome of...'.

A more usual modern word, at least in academic journals and in many departments, is 'abstract'.

  • It may look like the word tome, which is a monosyllable meaning 'a book' (with connotations of great size and weight: OED "now usually suggesting a large, heavy, old-fashioned book"); but epitome has four syllables: 'er-PIT-e-my' (IPA: /ə (or ɛ) p ˈɪt əm ɪ/), ending like 'enemy'. The associated verb epitomise (~ 'to make an epitome of', or 'to summarise') is pronounced similarly: 'er-PIT-er-mise' (IPA: /ə (or ɛ) p ˈɪt əm aɪz/).
It is an etymological oddity that 'tome' and 'epitome' share a root, a Greek word meaning 'to cut'. So an 'epitome' is a cut-down version of a larger work, and a 'tome' was originally used only for one of the volumes into which a larger work was divided for convenience. Tome is still the regular word for this in French. Another derivation is the suffix '-ectomy', meaning 'a cutting-out', used in medical sciences with the name of a part of the body to denote an operation for surgical removal: a tonsillectomy is the technical term for what lay people call 'having your tonsils out'.