The power of a good literary device can take a sentence like “Poems are easy to forget” to “For poems are like rainbows; they escape you quickly.” Both portray the same idea, but Langston Hughes’ melodic version provides a much clearer image and feeling of the evanescence of poetry. 

This ability to create clarity and expertly describe a certain idea is just one of the many benefits of using literary devices while writing. One that is particularly well-equipped to create strong descriptors is the epithet. When you hear the phrase star-crossed lovers, do you automatically think of Romeo and Juliet, while thoughts of the Sunshine State instantly transport you to Florida? Then you are already well on your way to understanding epithets.  

What is an Epithet? 

These descriptive phrases or words are so closely associated with a person, place or thing that it can be used to either accompany said noun or replace it completely. If you get into the nitty gritty epithet definition, you might notice it has two sides. 

While one side encompasses colorful characterizations, often epithets are seen in a negative light because they can be disparaging and abusive. There are many racist, homophobic, and sexist epithets that should not be taken lightly. This does not make using an epithet inherently wrong, but it does mean it’s important to look up the history of an epithet before you use it.

An epithet’s purpose is to provide a clear picture to the reader. This literary device uses vivid and rich figurative language to emphasize a noun’s strongest characteristics and improve descriptive writing. The epithetic “man’s best friend” provides a lot more insight into the strength of an owner’s relationship with their pet than “dog.” And “Daddy Longlegs” will put a more precise image of an Opilliones spider’s gangly legs in someone’s mind than its true name.

The Ancient Origins of the Epithet

Before epithets got the negative side of their definition, they were simply adjectives. Coming from the Ancient Greek word ἐπίθετον (epítheton), which means adjective, epithets were just words or phrases used to describe a noun or pronoun.

Eventually, when a certain word was used to describe something enough times or to a big enough audience, it became essentially synonymous with the word it was describing. 

Traveling Back in Time to Historical Epithets

Alexander the Great wasn’t born into his name, but rather given it after ruling as one of the finest Greek kings. Epithets like this one don’t erase the famous figure’s name completely, but rather add a defining feature onto it.

In the history of the United States, epithets have been used when referring to the fifty states. Connecticut is known as the Nutmeg State and Alaska as the Last Frontier. Cultures around the globe also feature epithets in celebrity names, movies, and comics. 

Spider-Man became The Amazing Spider-Man and Batman turned into The Dark Knight. Famous musicians like Ella Fitzgerald are known as The First Lady of Soul and well-known politicians like Margaret Thatcher as The Iron Lady. 

Writing with Epithets

In world literature, spoken word, and screenwriting, there are three different types of epithets. The first is a fixed epithet or a stock epithet, which is when the same word is used to describe something in multiple different contexts. The First Lady of Soul and The Iron Lady are both fixed epithets because they always refer to the same people.

Next is a kenning. This epithet is a multi-word expression that replaces a noun. One of the most common examples of this is the presence of epithet in Beowulf. Here the author uses “sleep of the sword” to replace death and “battle-sweat” to replace blood. 

Finally, there is the derogatory epithet. You encountered this earlier, but derogatory epithets also exist as literary devices. For example, in Harry Potter, the ghost of Hufflepuff is known as the Fat Friar for his larger appearance. While being fat isn’t a bad thing, using what can be perceived as a negative trait as someone’s defining feature isn’t usually appropriate. 

Homer’s Epithets

Ancient Greek works of literature like The Iliad also feature many colorful and evocative epithets. Homer is surely one of the kings of descriptive writing with his vivid, immersive scenes. “Rosy-fingered” is used to evoke the soft pink color of dawn and Achilles was often referred to as “swift-footed” for his speed. There are also many epithets in the Odyssey like “bright-eyed Athena” and “wise Penelope.” 

Exploring Other Expertly-crafted Epithets

Epithets aren’t completely synonymous with nicknames, but these are usually the easiest epithets to spot. In The Outsiders, many of the characters have nicknames that function as epithets such as Ponyboy, Sodapop, and Two-Bit Matthews. 

Epithets can also be less obvious. In their most basic form, epithets function as adjective-noun pairings that emphasize a key feature of the noun. For example, “pale Ophelia” and “noble son” accentuate these key features from characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These epithets simply associate with a noun rather than replacing it completely. No matter how they’re used, epithets play a key role in writing authentic fiction by helping craft believable characters and places. 

The Next Epithet Expert 

You might be curious about epithets after diving into the wine-dark sea of the Odyssey for the first time or because you want to improve your overall writing skills. If you’re looking into literary devices to become a professional screenwriter or author children’s books full-time, epithets are a great tool to start with. 

Begin by keeping an eye out for epithets in articles you read online or books you’re currently enjoying. You might even keep a list of your favorite epithets in your phone or try writing a new epithet each day for the next week. No matter where you start with epithets and where you plan to use them, they are a strong literary tool that can turn any word into a more vivid version of itself. 

Written By

Calli Zarpas

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