• epiphany •Pronunciation: ê-pi-fê-ni • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, count
Meaning: 1. (Epiphany) The Christian celebration on January 6 of the visit of the Three Wise Men to the newly born Christ. 2. The sudden appearance of a divine being. 3. A profound insight brought on suddenly by some experience, usually with spiritual overtones.
Notes: Despite this word's having passed through Latin on its way to us, it has produced only one relative: the adjective epiphanic. It may, of course, be extended to an adverb, epiphanically, but that is the end of the derivational line of epiphany.
In Play: Secular epiphanies are sudden, brought on by some event that has a profound effect: "Talking with you the other night, Madeleine, I had an epiphany; I suddenly realized how important children, a family, and a home are to me." An epiphany is much more than a bright idea, though; it has to make a profound difference in our attitudes and the way we behave: "After 20 years of planning for the future, it suddenly dawned on Dennis like an epiphany that he should live his life as if every day were his last."
Word History: Like so many English words, today's Good Word comes to us from Latin epiphania via French. The Romans picked it up from Greek epiphaneia "manifestation", a word derived from epiphainein "to manifest, display", made up of epi "on, over" + phainein "to show". The same root appears in Latin phantasia "appearance, imagination", which we rewrote as fantasy. This root also went into the making of Greek theophaneia, a noun derived from theophantos "revealed by a god" and containing theos "god" + phainein "to show". Old French reduced it to tiphanie, at which point English borrowed it, respelled the [f] sound, and used it to name tiffany, the thin gauzy muslin fabric—and the family responsible for the expensive jewelry and colorful lamps. (Today's Good Word was suggested by Gianni Tamburini, who enjoys the minor epiphanies words bring us with other web-footed verbivores in the Alpha Agora.)