Transferred Epithet Definition and Examples

How To Use This Evocative Figure of Speech Effectively

Transferred epithet examples

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A transferred epithet is a little known—but often used—figure of speech in which 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 inanimate objects, and therefore, can't be cruel. The person who installed the bars is cruel. The bars merely serve to foster the person's cruel intentions. Can a night be sleepless? No, it's the person experiencing a night during which he or she cannot sleep who is sleepless (in Seattle or anywhere else). Likewise, a sky can't be suicidal—but a dark, ominous sky might add to the depressed feelings of a suicidal individual.

Another example would be: "Sara has an unhappy marriage." Marriage is ephemeral; an intellectual construct—it can neither be happy or unhappy because a marriage is not capable of having emotions. Sara (and presumably her husband), on the other hand, could have an unhappy marriage. This quote, then, is a transferred epithet: It transfers the modifier, "unhappy," to the word "marriage."

The Language of Metaphors

Because transferred epithets provide a vehicle for metaphoric language, writers often employ them to infuse their works with vivid imagery as the following examples show:

“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."
From "Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit," by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse, whose work also includes many other effective uses of grammar and sentence structure, transfers his meditative feeling to the foot he is soaping. He even makes clear that he's really describing his own feelings of melancholy by noting that he could not say he was "feeling boomps-a-daisy" (wonderful or happy). Indeed, it was he who was feeling meditative, not his foot.

In the next line, "silence" cannot be discreet. Silence is a concept indicating a lack of sound. It has no intellectual capacity. It's clear that the author and his companions were being discreet by staying silent.

"We're coming close to those little creeks now, and we keep a discreet silence."
From "Rio San Pedro," by Henry Hollenbaugh

Expressing Feelings

In this 1935 letter to fellow British poet and novelist Stephen Spender, essayist/poet/playwright T.S. Eliot employs a transferred epithet to make his feelings clear:

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

Eliot is expressing his vexation, probably to criticism of him or some of his works. It's not the minute that is bewildering, but rather, it's 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 as a fellow writer, would likely have understood his frustrations.

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 a descriptive line from the poem "Fog" by acclaimed American poet Carl Sandburg:

"The fog comes on little cat feet.” 

Fog doesn't have feet. It's vapor. Fog can't "come," as in walk, either. So, this quote gives fog qualities it cannot have—little feet and the ability to walk. The use of personification helps to paint a mental picture in the reader's mind of the fog stealthily creeping in.