What is an Epithet?

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Epithet (derives from Greek Epitheton, literally “addition.”), involves the addition of an “ornamental” adjectiveOpens in new window or adjectival phraseOpens in new window as a qualifying word besides a proper nameOpens in new window or a common nounOpens in new window.

Epithets are closely related to metaphorsOpens in new window. In fact, Aristotle treats the two together in his discussion of metaphors. Epithets should be suitable to the words to which they are applied. By the addition of a descriptive adjective or sometimes with a metaphorical apposition, some quality of the nounOpens in new window is indicated.

PeachamOpens in new window sees Epithet as a general figure

which joins Adjectives to those Substitutes, to whom they properly belong, and that works either to praise or dispraise, to amplify or extenuate.

Epithet or Epitheton (as the Greek would call it) is typically used to refer to a modifying “slot” in the structure of the noun phrase, which is often filled with adjectives, to indicate “some quality” of the noun, whether “objective” (describing the thing itself, e.g. blue car) or “subjective” (the speaker’s attitude to it, e.g. fantastic car).

Classical Examples

  1. Katherine speaks of her prospective suitor admiringly as:“The young Dumaine, a well-accomplished youth”

    — (LLL, 2.1.56 – 7).

  2. Epithets can be used to honor or dishonor persons, or to heap abuse or praise upon a person. For example, Orestes, could be described either dishonorably, “the matricide,” or honorably, “the avenger of his father.”
  3. Epitheton is sometimes used in the conventional names or descriptive slogans found in oral-formulaic poetry: rosy-fingered dawn; swift-footed Achilles
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