What Does the Word 'Epithet' Mean?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Storm clouds over the ocean
The phrase, 'a wine-dark sea,' is an example of an epithet. Purestock / Getty Images

An epithet is a rhetorical term, from the Greek for "added," for an adjective or adjective phrase used to characterize a person or thing. The adjective form of the word is epithetic. An epithet is also known as a qualifier.

Other types of epithets include the Homeric epithet (also known as fixed or epic), which is a formulaic phrase (often a compound adjective) used habitually to characterize a person or thing (for example, "blood-red sky" and "wine-dark sea"). In a transferred epithet, the epithet is transferred from the noun it is meant to describe to another noun in the sentence.

In contemporary usage, epithet often carries a negative connotation and is treated as a synonym for "term of abuse" (as in the expression "racial epithet").

Examples and Observations

  • "Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness."
    (Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792)
  • "In art, all who have done something other than their predecessors have merited the epithet of revolutionary; and it is they alone who are masters."
    (Paul Gauguin)
  • "Bravely bold Sir Robin rode forth from Camelot.
    He was not afraid to die,
    O brave Sir Robin.
    He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways,
    Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin!...
    "Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
    And gallantly, he chickened out.
    Bravely taking to his feet,
    He beat a very brave retreat,
    Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin."
    (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1974)
  • "In H.G. Wells's science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895), the narrator uses epithets to refer to all but one of the characters who frequent the Time Traveller's—itself an epithet—house every Thursday evening: the Medical Man, the Provincial Mayor, the Editor, the Psychologist, the Very Young Man, and so forth."
    (Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003)
  • "Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea."
    (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922)

The Fixed Epithet

  • "The fixed epithet, a special variety found in epic poetry, is the repeated use of an adjective or phrase for the same subject; thus in Homer's Odyssey, the wife Penelope is always 'prudent,' the son Telemachus is always 'sound minded,' and Odysseus himself is 'many minded.'"
    (Stephen Adams, Poetic Designs. Broadview, 1997)

The Argumentative Force of Epithets

  • "[I]t 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."
    (Richard Whately, Elements of Rhetoric, 6th ed., 1841)

Epithet as a Smear Word

  • "'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."
    (William Safire, "Presents of Mind." The New York Times, June 22, 2008)

The Misuse of Epithets

  • "[T]he use of epithets in poetry, or even in prose where expressiveness is aimed at, is a danger. If you want to express the terror which something causes, you must not give it an epithet like 'dreadful.' For that describes the emotion instead of expressing it, and your language becomes frigid, that is inexpressive, at once. A genuine poet, in his moments of genuine poetry, never mentions by name the emotions he is expressing."
    (R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, 1938)
  • "One of the first things we have to say to a beginner who has brought us his ms. is, 'Avoid all epithets which are merely emotional.' It is no use telling us that something was 'mysterious' or 'loathsome' or 'awe-inspiring' or 'voluptuous.' Do you think your readers will believe you just because you say so? You must go quite a different way to work. By direct description, by metaphor and simile, by secretly evoking powerful associations, by offering the right stimuli to our nerves (in the right degree and the right order), and by the very beat and vowel-melody and length and brevity of your sentences, you must bring it about that we, we readers, not you, exclaim 'how mysterious!' or 'loathsome' or whatever it is. Let me taste for myself, and you’ll have no need to tell me how I should react to the flavor."
    (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1967)

The Epithet

  • "'Occult, night-wandering, enormous, honey-pale—'
    "The morning paper lay there unopened; I knew I ought to look at the news, but I was too busy just then trying to find an adjective for the Moon—the magical, unheard of, moony epithet, which, could I only find or invent it, what then would matter the sublunary quakes and conflicts of this negligible earth?"
    (Logan Pearsall Smith, More Trivia, 1921)