In my mind’s eye I can see streams of puzzled Age readers heading to their bookshelves this morning and dusting off their dictionaries. The headline “Dignified, tasteful epithets for hero” over a report of Jim Stynes’ funeral yesterday certainly jarred me. Doesn’t ‘epithet’ describe a term of abuse? Did they mean ‘epitaph’ instead?
Apparently not, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as:
a. An adjective indicating some quality or attribute which the speaker or writer regards as characteristic of the person or thing described.
2. A significant appellation
3. A term, phrase or expression (obsolete)
And ah! there it is- under “Draft Additions 1993”
b. An offensive or derogatory expression used of a person; an offensive term; a profanity.
Well, well- there I was thinking that the headline was just plain wrong and inappropriate. Do newspapers still have an educative function in teaching us the precise meanings of words (if indeed they ever did)? I’d like to think so, but given the sloppy proof-reading dished up in issue after issue, I wouldn’t hold my breath.