An etymological “epiphany”

You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.

As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?

El Greco’s Adoration of the Magi (Wikimedia Commons)

“Showing” your roots 

For Western Christians, the Feast of the Epiphany marks the visit of the Magi—those three kings of the Christmas carol—to the Christ child. Many of us remember this event, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, for its trivia fodder: the trio of Wise Men are Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, who presented the bemangered baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Christian theologians, meanwhile, emphasize it as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, i.e., their belief in Jesus as divine lord and savior of all people.

And “manifestation” is precisely what this word epiphany means. Epiphany comes from the Ancient Greek ἐπιϕάνεια (epiphaneia), which Liddell and Scott gloss as an “appearance” or “manifestation,” especially “of deities appearing to worshippers.” Epiphaneia stems from the verb ἐπιϕαίνειν (epiphainein), “to show forth” or “display.” Epiphainein, in turn, is composed of ἐπί (epi-, “on” or “to”) and ϕαίνειν (phainein, “to show” or “bring to light”).

The prefix epi– lives on in many English words, from epidemic to epiphenomenon. The verb phainein shows up in emphasis, fantasy, phantom, that very phenomenon, sycophant, and Tiffany, among others. Its hypothetical Proto-Indo-European root, *bha-, is believed to yield such an array as banner, beacon, beckon, berry, and buoy.

Tiffany? Another name for the Epiphany was Theophany (θεοϕάνια Theophania), a “manifestation of a god,” with θεός (theos) here meaning “god.” Theophania became Tiffany, and as Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges explain in their Oxford Dictionary of First Names, it “was once a relatively common name, given particularly to girls born on the feat of the Epiphany (6 January).”

Epiphaneia eventually became epiphania, specifically used for Christ’s Magi manifestation in the New Testament. Latin picks it up as epiphania, French turns it into epiphanie, and English borrows it as Epyphany as early as 1325. Middle English often elided its initial E, as in the pyphany. If this stuck, we’d have a great case of misdivision, just as apron comes from a napron or nickname from an eke name. We saw similar forces at work in omelette

Epiphany referred to the Christian feast day until the 17th century, when we see its sense extend to the appearance of other divine or superhuman beings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By 1859, British Romantic and noted opium-eater Thomas De Quincey is credited for epiphany’s modern sense of a “sudden insight or revelation,” channeled into the mainstream from literary applications, especially as popularized by James Joyce—who, to bring it full circle, was himself greatly influenced by the Christian Epiphany and its religious ideas therein.

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