What Does the Word "Epithet" Mean?

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 word for added, used to describe an adjective or adjective phrase that characterizes or describes a person or thing. The adjective form of the word is epithetic. Epithets are also known as qualifiers.

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

Examples and Descriptions of Epithets

Use the following examples and descriptions of epithets to familiarize yourself with the many roles that these devices can play.

  • "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).
  • "Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea," (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922).
  • "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
  • "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).
  • "'Occult,' 'night-wandering,' 'enormous,' 'honey-pale—' There lay the morning paper 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 find or invent it, what then would the earth's conflicts and quakes matter?" (Logan Pearsall Smith, "The Epithet," The Bookman, vol. 47).

Types of Epithets

Types of epithets include the Homeric, epic, or fixed epithet, which is a formulaic phrase (often a compound adjective) used habitually to characterize a person or thing (blood-red sky and wine-dark sea); the transferred epithet; the epithet as a smear word; and more. In a transferred epithet, the epithet is transferred from the noun it is meant to describe to another noun in the sentence.

Stephen Adams provides a definition of 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).

A smear word, a descriptive word or phrase used to damage someone's reputation, is also a type of epithet. "'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).

Epithets in Argument

Epithets can be powerful rhetorical tools that convey meaning more efficiently and effectively than longer argumentative methods "[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 anyone 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).

How to Avoid Misusing Epithets

As helpful as they can be, epithets are easy to misuse. R.G. Collingwood warns against using them in your writing to try to convey feelings and emotions. "[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).

C.S. Lewis echoes the advice above. "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).

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Does the Word "Epithet" Mean?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epithet-1690668. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Does the Word "Epithet" Mean? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epithet-1690668 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does the Word "Epithet" Mean?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epithet-1690668 (accessed June 4, 2023).