The Grammarphobia Blog

Letterary criticism

Q: Is there a word for someone who writes a book that consists only of letters? If there is no such word, how does “epistlographer” strike you?

A: There are quite a few words for letter writers, but none (at least none that we can find) for authors who write epistolary collections. If we were to invent one, though, we might adapt an Italian word for a man of letters, scholar, or author—letterato.

As we’ve said, English does have words for a writer of letters. “Epistolographer,” which is similar to the word you suggest, is already taken.

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for more of these words, most of them formed on the noun “epistle” (letter).

For instance, there’s “epistler,” meaning “a writer of an epistle.” The OED’s earliest example is from 1610, when the English bishop Joseph Hall wrote, “Let this ignorant epistler teach his censorious answerer.”

Then there’s “epistoler,” defined by the OED as “a letter-writer.” It was first used in 1637 by John Williams, Archbishop of York, in The Holy Table, Name and Thing: “Whether the Epistoler likes it or no.”

A more recent OED citation comes from an 1881 issue of the Saturday Review: “These two great epistolers and speakers” (the reference is to Prime Minister William Gladstone and a Member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh).

Another noun, “epistolist,” defined as “one who writes epistles,” dates from the mid-18th century. The word appeared in a letter written in 1743 from an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Carter, to her friend Catherine Talbot:

“I am extremely obliged to you … for your account of the Italian epistolists.” (As it happens, the OED quotes this from a book of letters published in 1808.)

Yet another such noun, “epistolarian,” defined as “a letter writer,” appeared in the early 19th century and promptly vanished.

The OED’s sole example is from Anna Maria Porter’s novel The Hungarian Brothers (1807): “I’ll maintain this sweet, sermonising epistolarian to be a woman.”

Another word that’s seldom seen and has only one OED citation is “epistolean” (“a writer of epistles or letters; a correspondent”).

This example was quoted in an 1881 edition of Joseph Emerson Worcester’s  A Dictionary of the English Language: “He has been a negligent epistolean as well as myself.”

In short, there are quite a few words for letter writers—we won’t even go into “epistolographist” (1822) or the above-mentioned “epistolographer” (1824)—but nary a one for authors of epistolary works.

Which reminds us of  the related words “epistolary” (pertaining to or contained in letters, 1656); “epistolize” (to write a letter, 1650); “epistolographic” (used in writing letters, 1669); and “epistolography” (letter-writing, 1888).

The mother of all these words, “epistle,” is very old, having been recorded in Old English in about 893. Sometimes, from Old English and even into the 1900s, it was shortened to “pistle.” (The “t” is silent, as you probably know.)

As for its etymology, English acquired “epistle” directly from Latin (epistola), but its ultimate source is Greek (epistole).

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, notes the interesting similarity between the Greek epistole (“something sent to someone”) and the word “apostle,” which literally means “someone sent out.”

In English, the OED says, an “epistle” is “a communication made to an absent person in writing; a letter.” But the definition goes a bit further:

“Chiefly (from its use in translations from Latin and Greek) applied to letters written in ancient times, esp. to those which rank as literary productions, or … to those of a public character, or addressed to a body of persons. In application to ordinary (modern) letters now used only rhetorically or with playful or sarcastic implication.”

That explains why “epistle,” as Ayto says, “has never really caught on in English as a general term for a ‘letter’—too high-falutin.”

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