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An epithet (from Greek: ἐπίθετον epitheton, neuter of ἐπίθετος epithetos, "attributed, added")[1] is a byname, or a descriptive term (word or phrase), accompanying or occurring in place of a name and having entered common usage. It has various shades of meaning when applied to seemingly real or fictitious people, divinities, objects, and binomial nomenclature. It can also be a descriptive title: for example, Pallas Athena, Alfred the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent or Władysław I the Elbow-high.

Epithet can also refer to an abusive, defamatory, or derogatory phrase.[2][3] This use as a euphemism is criticized by Martin Manser and other proponents of linguistic prescription.[4] Fowler complained that "epithet is suffering a vulgarization that is giving it an abusive imputation."[5]


Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name or appear in place of his or her name, as what might be described as a glorified nickname or sobriquet. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage. Not every adjective is an epithet. An epithet is especially recognizable when its function is largely decorative, such as if "cloud-gathering Zeus" is employed other than in reference to conjuring up a storm. "The epithets are decorative insofar as they are neither essential to the immediate context nor modeled especially for it. Among other things, they are extremely helpful to fill out a half-verse", Walter Burkert has noted.[6]

Some epithets are known by the Latin term epitheton necessarium because they are required to distinguish the bearers, e.g. as an alternative to numbers after a prince's name—such as Richard the Lionheart (Richard I of England), or Charles the Fat alongside Charles the Bald. The same epithet can be used repeatedly joined to different names, e.g. Alexander the Great as well as Constantine the Great.

Other epithets can easily be omitted without serious risk of confusion, and are therefore known (again in Latin) as epitheton ornans. Thus the classical Roman author Virgil systematically called his main hero pius Aeneas, the epithet being pius, which means religiously observant, humble and wholesome, as well as calling the armsbearer of Aeneas fidus Achates, the epithet being fidus, which means faithful or loyal.

There are also specific types of epithets, such as the kenning which appears in works such as Beowulf. An example of a kenning would be using the term whale-road instead of the word "sea".


Epithets are characteristic of the style of ancient epic poetry, notably in that of Homer or the northern European sagas (see above, as well as Epithets in Homer). When James Joyce uses the phrase "the snot-green sea" he is playing on Homer's familiar epithet "the wine-dark sea". The phrase "Discreet Telemachus" is also considered an epithet.

The Greek term antonomasia, in rhetoric, means substituting any epithet or phrase for a proper name, as Pelides, signifying the "son of Peleus", to identify Achilles. An opposite substitution of a proper name for some generic term is also sometimes called antonomasia, as a Cicero for an orator. The use of a father's name or ancestor's name, such as "Pelides" in the case of Achilles, or "Saturnia" in the case of the goddess Juno in Vergil's Aeneid, is specifically called a patronymic device and is in its own class of epithet.

In William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, epithets are used in the prologue, such as "star-cross'd lovers" and "death-mark'd love."

Epithets were in layman's terms glorified nicknames that could be used to represent one's style, artistic nature, or even geographical reference. They originated to simply serve the purpose of dealing with names that were hard to pronounce or just unpleasant.[7] It from there went to something that could be very significant assigned by elders or counterparts to represent one's position in the community or it could be a representation of whomever one wanted to be or thought he was.[8] The elegance of this movement was used throughout history and even modern day with many examples ranging from "Aphrodite the Heavenly & Zeus the Protector of Guests" all the way to "Johnny Football & King James".[7]

American comic books tend to give epithets to superheroes, such as The Phantom being "The Ghost Who Walks", Superman called "The Man of Steel", and "The Dynamic Duo" Batman and Robin, who are individually known as "The Dark Knight" and "The Boy Wonder".[9]

Additionally, epíteto, the Spanish version of epithet, is commonly used throughout poems in Castilian literature.


In many polytheistic religions, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome, a deity's epithets generally reflected a particular aspect of that god's essence and role, for which their influence may be obtained for a specific occasion: Apollo Musagetes is "Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses" and therefore patron of the arts and sciences[10] while Phoibos Apollo is the same deity, but as shining sun-god. "Athena protects the city as polias, oversees handicrafts as ergane, joins battle as promachos and grants victory as nike."[11]

Alternatively, the epithet may identify a particular and localized aspect of the god, such as a reference to the mythological place of birth or numinous presence at a specific sanctuary: sacrifice might be offered on one and the same occasion to Pythian Apollo (Apollo Pythios) and Delphic Apollo (Apollo Delphinios). A localizing epithet refers simply to a particular center of veneration and the cultic tradition there, as the god manifested at a particular festival, for example: Zeus Olympios, Zeus as present at Olympia, or Apollo Karneios, Apollo at the Spartan Carneian festival.

Often the epithet is the result of fusion of the Olympian divinity with an older one: Poseidon Erechtheus, Artemis Orthia, reflect intercultural equations of a divinity with an older one, that is generally considered its pendant; thus most Roman gods and goddesses, especially the Twelve Olympians, had traditional counterparts in Greek, Etruscan, and most other Mediterranean pantheons, such as Jupiter as head of the Olympian Gods with Zeus, but in specific cults, there may be a different equation, based on one specific aspect of the divinity. Thus the Greek word Trismegistos: "thrice grand" was first used as a Greek name for the Egyptian god of science and invention, Thoth, and later as an epitheton for the Greek Hermes and, finally, the fully equated Roman Mercurius Mercury (both were messenger of the gods). Among the Greeks, T. H. Price notes[12] the nurturing power of Kourotrophos might be invoked in sacrifices and recorded in inscription, without specifically identifying Hera or Demeter.

Some epithets were applied to several deities of the same pantheon rather accidentally if they had a common characteristic, or deliberately, emphasizing their blood- or other ties; thus in pagan Rome, several divinities gods, and heroes were given the epitheton Comes as companion of another (usually major) divinity. An epithet can even be meant for collective use, e.g. in Latin pilleati 'the felt hat-wearers' for the brothers Castor and Pollux. Some epithets resist explanation.[11]

Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Christians of other churches practice the use of epithets in the veneration of Jesus (e.g., "Christ"; "Prince of Peace"; "The Good Shepherd"), of Mary, Mother of Jesus (e.g. "Mother of God"; "Panagia"), and of the saints (e.g. "Pope Saint John Paul the Great, Saint Theophan the Recluse"). "Our Lady of Lourdes" is essentially periphrasis, except where some aspect of the Virgin is invoked.[citation needed]


An epithet is an adjective or adjectival phrase that characterizes a place, a thing, or a person that helps make the characteristics of this thing more prominent. These descriptive phrases can be used in a positive or negative way that benefits the orator. "It will generally happen, that the Epithets employed by a skillful orator, will be found to be, in fact, so many abridged arguments, the force of which is sufficiently conveyed by a mere hint; e.g. if any one says, 'We ought to take warning from the bloody revolution of France,' the Epithet suggests one of the reasons for our being warned; and that, not less clearly, and more forcibly, than if the argument had been stated at length."[13] With persuasion being a key component of rhetoric, it is rational to use epithets. The use of persuasive wording gives leverage to one's arguments. Knowledge along with descriptive words or phrases can be a powerful tool. This is supported in Bryan Short's article when he states, "The New Rhetoric derives its empiricist flavor from a pervasive respect for clarity and directness of language."[14] Rhetors use epithets to direct their audience to see their point of view, using verbal forms of imagery as a persuasive tactic.

Orators have a variety of epithets that they can employ that have different meanings. The most common are fixed epithets and transferred epithets. A fixed epithet is the repetitive use of the same word or phrase for the same person or object. A transferred epithet qualifies a noun other than the person or thing it is describing. This is also known as a hypallage. This can often involves shifting a modifier from the animate to the inanimate; for example, "cheerful money" and "suicidal sky".

Orators take special care when using epithets so as to not use them as smear words. Orators could be accused of racial or abusive epithets if used incorrectly. American journalist William Safire discussed the use of the word in a 2008 column in The New York Times: "'I am working on a piece about nationalism with a focus on epithet as a smear word,' writes David Binder, my longtime Times colleague, 'which was still a synonym for 'delineation' or 'characterization' in my big 1942 Webster's but now seems to be almost exclusively a synonym for 'derogation' or 'smear word.' ... In the past century, [epithet] blossomed as 'a word of abuse,' today gleefully seized upon to describe political smears."[15]

Politics and military[edit]

In historical, journalistic, and other writings, epithets often carry a political message. These differ from official titles as they express no legal status; however, they may confer prestige, especially if bestowed by an authority or legislature, and may be used for propaganda purposes. Examples of such epithets are the various traditions of victory titles awarded to generals and rulers or to entire military units, such as the adjective "Fidelis" ("loyal") bestowed on various Roman legions.

Usage prior to surnames[edit]

Descriptive bynames were given to a person to distinguish them from other persons of the same name. In England by-names were used during the period when the use of surnames had not been extensively adopted. As an example the Domesday Book of 1085 identifies 40 individuals with the given name of "Richard". Most (40%), such as "Richard of Coursey" are identified with a locational by-name, indicating where they came from, or in some cases where they lived. Others (25%), such as "Richard the butler" and "Richard the bald" are identified with an occupational or a personally descriptive by-name. Some of the individuals, such as Richard Basset, made use of what we would recognize as a surname.

The distinction between a by-name and a surname lies in the fact that the by-name is not usually heritable, and may change for any given person as his circumstances change. Richard the bald, for example, was presumably not always bald, and Richard of Brampton may not have always lived at Brampton.

The use of by-names did not end with the adoption of surnames. In some cases, before the adoption of middle names, government records, such as taxes lists, included persons with both the same given name and the same surname. This led to the use of by-names to further distinguish the person. For example one "John Smith" might be described as "John Smith of the mill", while another might be described as "John Smith the short".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (eds.). "Epithetos". A Greek-English Lexicon. Perseus.Tufts.edu.
  2. ^ "epithet". Merriam-Webster.com.
  3. ^ Herzfeld, Michael (2016). Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions. Routledge. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-317-29755-0.
  4. ^ Manser, Martin H. (2007). Good Word Guide (6th ed.). A&C Black. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-7136-7759-1.
  5. ^ Fowler. H. W. (1965) [1926]. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. (2nd ed.) Rev. By Sir Ernest Gowers. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 161.
  6. ^ Burkert, W. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture of the Early Archaic Age, 1992, p.116.
  7. ^ a b Wheeler, L. K. "Epithets", web.cn.edu, Carson-Newman College; accessed 25 October 2013.
  8. ^ Headlam, W. "The Classic Review." jstor.org. Cambridge University Press, accessed 25 October 2013.
  9. ^ Thompson, Don. All in Color for a Dime, Volume 25, p. 77. Arlington House, 1970. ISBN 0870000624
  10. ^ Hence the word mouseion = museum
  11. ^ a b Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1985) III.4.4. "The special character of Greek anthropomorphism", especially p.184.
  12. ^ Price, T. H. Kourotrophos, 1978, noted by Burkert 1985:184.
  13. ^ Whately, Richard (1841). "Elements of Rhetoric". 6. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ Short, Bryan (2000). "Figurative Language in the Scottish New Rhetoric Figurative Language in the Scottish New Rhetoric". Language Sciences. Elsevier. 22.
  15. ^ Safire, William (June 22, 2008). "Presents of the Mind". The New York Times.

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