I. What is Epithet?
A girl’s name is Marilynn, but her parents call her Lynn. Her sister calls her Mary. And her friends call her Merry-go-round when she’s being silly. Lynn, Mary, and Merry-go-round are all epithets, or special nicknames that replace the name of a person and often describe them in some way. Epithet (pronounced ep–uh-thet) is derived from the Greek phrase epitithenai, meaning “to add” or “to put on.”
II. Examples of Epithet
Daddy Longlegs is the epithet commonly used for Opiliones spiders. Oftentimes, epithets take a particular characteristic or description of a subject and use it to replace the subject’s actual name.
Man’s best friend
This phrase is immediately understood as meaning “dog.” Dogs have been such important and constant companions to human beings that they have earned the epithet “man’s best friend.”
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan IV Vasilyevich earned his epithet for the fear he inspired in his subjects and enemies. In this example, the epithet takes the form of the byname “the Terrible.”
III. The Importance of Epithet
Epithets show just how strong certain character traits or physical traits are, as they come to replace the actual names of people, places, or things. Also known as sobriquets, these longstanding nicknames label the most memorable aspects of kings and queens and also provide simplified names for complicated or scientific concepts.
IV. Examples of Pastiche in Literature
Epithet is a common element in literature, coloring characters by specific traits that come to define them. For an example, consider William Golding’s character Piggy in Lord of the Flies:
Piggy, for all his ludicrous body, had brains. Ralph was a specialist in thought now, and could recognize thought in another.
Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed.
Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.
The epithet Piggy is simple on the surface: the child is overweight and when bullied in school, he earns the nickname “Piggy.” As these excerpts show, though, the name is complicated by the savagery on the island which results in his loss of humanity and death. It is ironic as well in that the wisest character has the silliest name.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Hail Son of God, Saviour of Men, thy Name
Shall be the copious matter of my Song
Henceforth, and never shall my Harp thy praise
Forget, nor from thy Father’s praise disjoin.
Milton’s epic poem is filled with epithets, most of which are for God and Jesus: “Maker” and “Father” as well as “Son of God” and “Savior of Men.” Because God and Jesus are mentioned frequently and so exalted, they are given a variety of names.
V. Examples of Pastiche in Pop Culture
Epithets can be throughout pop culture from famous film characters to pop stars’ stage names. Here are a few examples of epithet in the music industry:
- Elvis Presley was given the epithet “The King of Rock and Roll” or simply “The King.”
- Louis Armstrong had the epithets “Satchmo” and “Pops.”
- Ella Fitzgerald is known as the “First Lady of Song” and “Queen of Jazz.”
Epithets are also common in sports:
- George Herman Ruth, Jr. as “Babe Ruth,” and “The Bambino.”
- Usain Bolt as “Lightning Bolt” and “Bolt from the blue.”
Just as kings and queens earn epithets, today’s celebrities carry their own glorified nicknames. These are but a few examples of how famous people come to be known by epithets.
VI. Related Terms
Like epithet, antonomasia involves the substitution of a name for another. Whereas epithets may be nicknames applied to a wide variety of subjects, antonomasia is the substitution of a well-known and documented name for a famous person. Here are a few examples of antonomasia:
- William Shakespeare as “The Bard.”
- Muhammad Ali as “The Greatest.”
- Aristotle as “The Philosopher.”
Epithet may also be confused with other literary terms due to similar names. For example, consider epigrams and epigraphs.
Epigrams are witty sayings which cleverly express an idea. Here are a few examples of epigrams:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
This brief epigram by William Blake expresses a universal idea with brevity and beauty.
Epigraphs are short phrases placed at the beginning of a document such as a novel or poem. Epigraphs may be brief poems, quotes, or phrases which serve to challenge, introduce, or invite comparison to the following composition.
Here are a one example of a famous epigraphs:
This simple epigraph introduces E.M. Forester’s novel Howard’s End, as well as its main theme: human connection and love.
Although they share the prefix epi-, epigrams and epigraphs share very little with epithets in their actual definition. Be careful to differentiate between the three.
VI. In Closing
Whether you’re a “Long Legs” basketball player, “Cheetah” sprinter, “Speedy-McGee” reader, or sleepy “Sloth,” chances are you have been given a nickname. Epithets provide both everyday and famous people, places, and things with memorable titles.