Writing

What Is Epithet? Definition and Examples of How to Correctly Use Epithet in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Aug 15, 2019 • 3 min read

Some of the most revered writers and poets of all time use epithets to add texture to their prose. From the epic poems of Homer to the poetry and plays of Shakespeare, these vast works and their strategic use of epithets have helped shape readers’ literary imaginations for centuries.

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What Is an Epithet?

An epithet is a literary device that describes a person, place, or object by accompanying or replacing it with a descriptive word or phrase. The word “epithet” comes from the Greek word “epitheton” (neuter of “epithetos”) which translates to “added” or “attributed.”

Once an epithet is introduced, it’s often repeated throughout a piece of writing to create a sense of familiarity for the reader. Epithets also commonly appear next to or in place of a person’s name like a nickname such as Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Alexander the Great, and Richard the Lionheart.

Known by the Latin term epitheton necessarium, these epithets specify which person is being discussed. They’re common among European nobility and Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Other examples of epithet in monarchs include French king Charles the Bald and Spanish king Philip the Pious.

In literary terms, epithets are a characteristic of Homer’s style. When he wrote his epic poems like The Odyssey, around the eighth century BC, they were intended to be experienced through hearing, not reading. Thus, in addition to being literary devices, epithets are also auditory devices. Naming people, places, and objects with epithets and repeating them helped listeners connect better to the work and made the many elements of the story easier to decipher.

Why Do Writers Use Epithets?

Epithets make a text more meaningful. They allow writers to describe characters and settings with more vivid, figurative language and can help paint a better picture for readers using just a few words. Epithets make sentences stronger and more vibrant, especially in poetry.

3 Types of Epithets With Examples of Each

Familiarize yourself with the different types of epithets and epithet examples so you can use them—or in some cases, avoid using them—more purposefully and effectively:

  1. Fixed epithet. The repeated use of a word or phrase for the same person, place, or object. Also called the Homeric epithet, fixed epithets are commonly used in epic poetry. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is repeatedly referred to as “many-minded,” Penelope as “prudent,” and Telemachus as “sound-minded.”
  2. Argumentative epithet. Epithets that hint at a warning. Argumentative epithets are commonly used by orators to suggest a possible outcome. During a speech, a lawmaker might reference the negative outcomes of a past war or skirmish, strongly hinting that something similarly bad could happen if circumstances don’t change.
  3. Kenning. A specific epithet that’s a two-word phrase that metaphorically describes an object. Kennings are commonly found in Old English and Old Norse poetry. “Sky-candle” is a kenning for the sun and “bookworm” is a more modern kenning in the English language for a voracious reader.

How to Use Epithets Correctly

Epithets are powerful literary tools, but they aren’t always used correctly. The most successful epithets are used strategically; they captivate readers’ attention and create consistency.

  • One of the main ways writers misuse epithets is by choosing words that describe an emotion, not express it. For example, rather than describing someone as “demonic,” describe them as a “hell-hound” as Macduff does in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Demonic” is your emotional interpretation; “hell-hound” paints a picture, evokes strong associations, and gives your readers a reason to believe you.
  • Remember: many epithets are adjectives, such as “fair Ophelia” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the “wine-dark sea” in Homer’s Odyssey. But according to the definition of epithet—a descriptive word or phrase that replaces a person, place, or object—not all adjectives are epithets. Epithets require careful thought and strategy, and when used wisely, they will create an association in your audience’s minds that will stick with them.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, Billy Collins, and more.

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