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This article is about the general concept. For the taxonomic usage, see Specific epithet.

An epithet (from Greek: ἐπίθετον epitheton, neut. 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 can be described as a glorified nickname. 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, Alexander the Great or Suleiman the Magnificent.

In contemporary usage, epithet often refers to an abusive, defamatory, or derogatory phrase, such as a racial epithet.[2] This use as a euphemism is criticized by Martin Manser and other prescriptive linguists.[3]


In linguistics, an epithet only can be a metaphor, essentially a reduced or condensed use of apposition. 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 modelled especially for it. Among other things, they are extremely helpful to fill out a half-verse", Walter Burkert has noted.[4]

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. However, it should be noted that 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 famous play Romeo and Juliet, epithets are used in the prologue, used in "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.[5] 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.[6] 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]


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 his 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[8] 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.[9]

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 Delios). 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, e.g. 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[10] 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 a 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]

Similar practices still exist in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in the veneration of Christ and, mainly, of the saints. "Our Lady of Lourdes" is essentially periphrasis, unless some aspect of the Virgin were being invoked.


Epithets have a wide spectrum of forms available. Epithets can be used negativity and are usually seen that way[clarification needed]; in rhetoric they are used descriptively in favor of the orator[clarification needed]. Words or phrases with positive or negative aspects can be seen as an epithet in a rhetorical way[clarification needed]. Donoghue describes this: [clarification needed] "In this rhetorical sense, epithets are not restricted to single adjectives; they may include nouns or phrases. Conveying what is essential to the noun continues to characterize epithet even in later centuries when the phrase is not formulaic."[12] 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."[13] Rhetors use epithets to direct their audience to see their point of view, using verbal forms of imagery as a persuasive tactic. As in Matt Bai's article, The Framing Wars, he states, ". . . a handy term to describe anything to do with changing the party's image though some new combination of language."[14] An audience that can be influenced is a goal, and framing contributes to this in the rhetorical world.


  1. ^ Epithetos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  2. ^ Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epithet
  3. ^ Manser, Martin H. (2007), Good Word Guide sixth edition, A&C Black, p. 147. ISBN 978-0-7136-7759-1
  4. ^ W. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture of the Early Archaic Age 1992, p 116.
  5. ^ Wheeler, L. K. "Epithets." Web.cn.edu. Carson-Newman College, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
  6. ^ Headlam, W. "The Classic Review." http://www.jstor.org. Cambridge University Press, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
  7. ^ Wheeler, L. K. "Epithets." Web.cn.edu. Carson-Newman College, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
  8. ^ Hence the word mouseion= museum
  9. ^ Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, 1985) III.4.4. "The special character of Greek anthropomorphism", especially p. 184.
  10. ^ Price, Kourotrophos, 1978, noted by Burkert 1985:184.
  11. ^ Burkert 1985:184.
  12. ^ Donoghue, D. "Epithet". In the Princeton encyloedia of poetry and poetics. Retrieved 6 March 2014. 
  13. ^ Short, Bryan. "Figurative Language in the Scottish New Rhetoric Figurative Language in the Scottish New Rhetoric". Elsevier. 
  14. ^ Bai, Matt (17 July 2005). "The Framing Wars". The New York Times. 

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. Titles attached to modern units, such as the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army being called the 'screaming eagles', may be a continuation of this tradition.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of epithet at Wiktionary

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