Transferred Epithet Definition and Examples

Learn to use this figure of speech effectively.

transferred epithet

A transferred epithet is a little known—but often used—figure of speech where a modifier (usually an adjective) qualifies a noun other than the person or thing it is actually describing. In other words, the modifier or epithet is transferred from the noun it is meant to describe to another noun in the sentence. 

Transferred Epithet Examples

An example of a transferred epithet is: "I had a wonderful day." The day is not in itself wonderful.

The speaker had a wonderful day. The epithet "wonderful" actually describes the kind of day the speaker experienced. Some other examples of transferred epithets are "cruel bars," "sleepless night," and "suicidal sky." 

The bars, presumably installed in a prison, are not cruel; they are inanimate objects. The person who installed the bars is cruel; the bars serve to foster this person's cruel intentions. Likewise, a night can't be sleepless. It is a person who is experiencing a night where she cannot sleep. And, a sky can't be suicidal, but a dark sky might make a depressed person feel suicidal.

Transferred Epithets vs. Personification

Don't confuse transferred epithets with personification, a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. One of literature's best examples of personification is 19th-century poet Carl Sanberg's description of fog:

"The fog comes / on little cat feet.” 

Fog doesn't have feet. It's an inanimate object. Fog also can't "come in" (walk). So, this quote gives fog qualities it cannot have—little feet and the ability to walk. But, the use of personification helps to paint a mental picture in the reader's mind of the fog slowly creeping in.

By contrast, you could say: 

"Sara has an unhappy marriage."

Of course, a marriage cannot, itself, be unhappy. Marriage is inanimate; it's just an idea. But Sara (and presumably her husband) could have an unhappy marriage. This quote, then, is a transferred epithet: It transfers the modifier, "unhappy," to the word "marriage."

Meditative Foot

Because transferred epithets provide a vehicle for metaphoric language, writers have often employed them to infuse their works with vivid imagery. These examples show writers and poets effectively using transferred epithets in their works:

“As I sat in the bathtub, soaping a meditative foot and singing...it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy."

- P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, 1954

Wodehouse, whose work also includes many other effective uses of grammar and sentence structure, transfers his meditative feeling to the foot he is soaping. Of course, the foot doesn't feel meditative; a foot can't have human emotions (though it can have physical feelings, such as pain). Wodehouse even makes clear that he is really describing his own feelings of melancholy by noting that he could not say he was "feeling boomps-a-daisy" (wonderful or happy).

Indeed, he was feeling meditative, not his foot.

This next quote uses a transferred epithet in a manner very similar to those at the beginning of this article:

"We're coming close to those little creeks now, and we keep a discreet silence."

- Henry Hollenbaugh, Rio San Pedro. Alondra Press, 2007

In this sentence, the silence cannot be discreet; it's an inanimate idea. It's clear that the author and his companions were being discreet while staying silent.

Expressing Feelings

British essayist, poet, and playwright T.S. Eliot uses a transferred epithet to make his feelings clear in a letter fo a fellow British poet and novelist:

"You don't really criticize any author to whom you have never surrendered yourself. . . . Even just the bewildering minute counts."

- T. S. Eliot, letter to Stephen Spender, 1935

In this case, Eliot is expressing his frustration, probably to criticism of him or some of his works. It is not the minute that is bewildering; it is Eliot who feels that the criticism is bewildering and likely unwarranted. By calling the minute bewildering, Eliot was trying to elicit empathy from Spender, who would have understood his feelings and frustration.

So, the next time you want to express your feelings in an essay, letter, or story, try using a transferred epithet: You can cast your feelings onto an inanimate object, yet still make your emotions perfectly clear to your reader.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Transferred Epithet Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2018, thoughtco.com/transferred-epithet-1692558. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, February 5). Transferred Epithet Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/transferred-epithet-1692558 Nordquist, Richard. "Transferred Epithet Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/transferred-epithet-1692558 (accessed April 21, 2018).