Judging by the word’s common use in today’s media, one might imagine epithet to be no more than a synonym for insult.
Some epithets are insults, but the word has a wider application.
For example, look at all these epithets Handel applied to the Baby Jesus in The Messiah:
Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Here are some Homeric epithets:
many minded Achilles, swift-footed Odysseus, the ox-eyed lady (Hera)
epithet — 1. An adjective indicating some quality or attribute which the speaker or writer regards as characteristic of the person or thing described; 2. A significant appellation. –OED 2nd edition. In 1993 this definition was added: An offensive or derogatory expression used of a person; an abusive term; a profanity.
Leaving aside the literary uses of epithets, here’s a look at some ways journalists use them.
Some epithets, first used by one particular writer, become so attached to persons and things that it becomes rare to see one without the other:
powerful Ways and Means committee
embattled Governor Rod Blagojevich
world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart
Sometimes epithets may be used to predispose readers to a positive or negative frame of mind without seeming to editorialize:
Motorist Rodney King…
Troubled pop star Brittany Spears…
NFL star Michael Vick…
semi-repentant zillionaire Mel Gibson…
greedy Wall Street bankers…
Some thoughts on epithets
1. Cliched epithets are not intrinsically “bad.” They can be useful shorthand devices for writers and readers in a hurry.
2. The epithet is a respectable rhetorical device. Writers with more time at their disposal might revise for cliched epithets and come up with fresher epithets of their own.
3. If one is writing about someone “hurling epithets” it might be helpful to specify what kind of epithets were hurled. Were they racial epithets? Did they attack the target in terms of gender, politics, occupation, or morality? It’s conceivable that a speaker could be “showered” with complimentary epithets by his listeners.