Epithets Add Character

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Have you thought about the impact of using epithets in your writing? An epithet (from the Greek word epithetos, meaning “added”) is a word or phrase used in place of or in addition to a name to characterize the person, place, or thing. In fiction or nonfiction, it’s an effective device for evoking the subject’s qualities and for elegant variation.

An epithet, also called a byname, is sometimes also referred to as sobriquet, though this word (and its variant soubriquet) is also a synonym for the more pedestrian nickname.

You’re familiar with many epithets: Superheroes are frequent recipients of such designations: Superman is the Man of Steel, and Batman is the Caped Crusader or the Dark Knight. Such application of this device is only natural, considering that throughout history, mythical and legendary characters have acquired alternate appellations based on various aspects of their perceived personalities, such as Venus Genetrix (“Mother Venus”). Greek myths and tales are replete with epithets; Homer employed them liberally for poetic effect, as in referring to Agamemnon as “the son of Atreus” for” or calling the ocean “the wine-dark sea.”

Musicians, too, are given epithets (or claim them for themselves): Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, the Beatles were the Fab Four, and Bruce Springsteen is still the Boss. Other artists have earned them, too, like William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, or just the Bard.

Epithets describe politicians such as Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator or the Teflon President, and his contemporary Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. German leader Otto von Bismarck was called the Iron Chancellor, and a successor of his, Adolf Hitler, was styled Der Führer (“the Leader”), while his Italian counterpart, Benito Mussolini, was Il Duce (“the Duke”).

Athletes have had epithets bestowed on them: Babe Ruth was the Great Bambino, or just the Bambino (Italian for “baby”), and the Sultan of Swat, while Brazilian football star Pele was the King of Soccer.

As stated above, epithets can also be applied to places or things. Before Africa was thoroughly explored by Europeans and many of its countries came into their own in the twentieth century, it was long referred to as the Dark Continent. The New York Times is still known among journalists as the Gray Lady. Economics has been dubbed “the dismal science.”

Note the mechanics of using epithets: When they appear by themselves, no emphasis is necessary other than, usually, initial capitalization of key words in the phrase. But enclose them in quotation marks when inserting them between first and last names (“Elvis ‘the King’ Presley”) or naming them as phrases (“Jealously is sometimes called ‘the green-eyed monster’”).

Moderate use of epithets helps relieve the writer of having to exclusively use a person’s name or a pronoun, and it also allows for good-natured or not-so-good-natured humor: In the latter case, for example, the late artist Thomas Kinkade, widely criticized for the hubris of trademarking the personal epithet “the Painter of Light,” was referred to as “the Painter of Bud Light” after an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol.

In a more lighthearted vein, the character Horace Rumpole, from the television series Rumpole of the Bailey and its offshoots in other media, privately refers to his imperious wife as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”; this epithet is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the regal title character of the nineteenth-century lost-civilization novel She: A History of Adventure.

Of course, writers can employ epithets in a more functional vein, as when they refer to any of the historical figures and pop-culture personalities mentioned above, but a subject need not be famous to earn an epithet: “Under his breath, Smith referred to Jones, who never returned what he borrowed, as ‘the Lord of the Light Fingers’ and ‘the Master of Mendicants.’”

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6 thoughts on “Epithets Add Character”

  1. My good old teacher of classical greek has always instructed us that this phenomenon was an ‘epitheton ornans’, a ‘decorative adstruction’. The goddess Eos would always be referred to as the ‘rose-fingered dawn’.
    He told us that these constructions would act as a restpoint for the bards who would recite Homers stories off the top of their head, as they were only handed down orally.

  2. Frank Sinatra – Snots, Old Blue Eyes
    Wilt Chamberlain – Wilt the Stilt
    Sylvester Stallone – Sly
    Jim Morrison – The Lizard King

  3. The acceptability of political epithets depends of course on one’s own political position.

    For those of us on the Left, Reagan was
    • Ronald Rayguns (from his “Strategic Defence Initiative” aka Star Wars),
    • President Back-to-the Future (because he wanted to rewrite US history omitting the 1960s and 70s – and, yes, the eponymous film was produced during his reign),
    • The Great Marionette / Great Glove Puppet (from his eagerness to dance to the tune of big corporations / parrot the doctrines of the Chicago School of Economics),
    • Ronald McDonald / The Clown / The Spak-Filla President (from the amount of makeup it took to make him look less than 150 years old),
    • The Great Carbuncle (Boil; from the joke about the man – let’s say Reagan in his cowboy movie days – who comes into a bar and takes off his hat. The bartender says, “What’s that?” and the boil replies, “I don’t know … I woke up this morning and it was just hanging off my backside!”).

    Omitting the egregiously sexist epithets, Thatcher was
    • The Headmistress (from the way she ‘lectured’ her opponents),
    • Old Plummie (from her affected, plum-in-the-mouth accent, after elocution lesson),
    • Mrs Twin-Set-n-Pearls (from her studiedly middle-class and rather out-of-date dress style),
    • Marge-n-Tina (Marge is a diminutive of Margaret; her slogan was “There Is No Alternative” – to capitalism. And a hit at the time was the musical ‘Evita,’ about the populist Perons, with its well-known “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”),
    • But the oldest and most enduring epithet for Mrs Thatcher is simply The Maggot.

  4. Very instructive, Mark. Good topic. Are the rules any different if the epithet is intended to replace a proper name? I’m thinking of the Harry Potter character Tom Marvolo, who renamed himself Lord Voldemort. People were so afraid of him they refused to say his name, instead calling him He Who Must Not Be Named or just You-Know-Who. Since his assumed name was meant to be obscured would his epithet still follow the same rules you’ve given us above?

  5. Stephen:

    Yes. I am one of the few people on Earth who hasn’t read the Harry Potter series (I started the first book, but it did nothing for me), but I assume Ms. Rowling correctly styled Voldemort’s epithets, without quotation marks.

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