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What Is an Epithet? Definition and Examples

Updated on April 30, 2024Writing Tips

The notoriously reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye is a man of many names. To loyal literary fans, he’s J. D. Salinger. On his birth certificate, he’s Jerome David. To his family, his nickname as a boy was Sonny. To his editors and friends, he was always Jerry.

All these variations of a single name are epithets, or special nicknames that go with or replace a name. Also known as sobriquets, epithets can be phrases or words used to accompany or take the place of the name of a person, place, or thing.

In many cases, an epithet is used to describe a person’s personality or a physical trait, such as “the Great” in Alexander the Great. The usage shows just how strong a certain trait is, as an epithet will often come to replace the actual name of the person, place, or thing being described—such as The Big Apple replacing New York City.

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Rooted in ancient Greek poetry, epithets often capture the essential characteristics of what they are describing. But they can also be used invectively as a term of contempt or abuse, or to express hostility.

Let’s take a look at the different types of epithets, their positive and negative applications, their purpose, and how to use them in writing.

What is an epithet?

Epithets are characterizing words or phrases firmly associated with a person or thing and typically used in place of an actual name or title. The word “epithet” comes from the Greek word epitheton, which translates to “added” or “attributed.”

Because they are phrased in a way that is figurative and more relatable, they do much to describe a character or setting – especially in literature or history.

Epithets are characterizing words or phrases firmly associated with a person or thing and typically used in place of an actual name or title. More than a simple adjective, epithets attribute a specific quality or characteristic to what is being described.

For example, one of the most common epithets describes a dog as man’s best friend. This instantly suggests that a dog embodies all of the qualities of a best friend: loyalty, devotion, support, love, and protection. You can use this expression without using the word “dog” at all—for instance, you might say, “The park was full of man’s best friends”—because it clearly and vividly expresses what a dog can mean to a person.

In literature, epithets are literary devices used to describe a person or thing in a way that emphasizes a particular quality in a narrative. They can create vivid imagery (the wine-dark sea), enhance characterization (Odysseus as the great tactician), or convey cultural or historical significance (Margaret Thatcher as The Iron Lady).

What is the purpose of using epithets in writing?

For writers wanting to spice up the descriptive quality of their prose, epithets can enrich literary works by adding imagery and layers of meaning. They can contribute to the overall effectiveness of the text, engaging readers more deeply by creating significant and long-lasting characterizations.

Epithets in literature serve 5 main purposes:

1 Characterization: Epithets highlight a person, place, or thing’s prominent qualities, calling to light aspects of their personality or physicality that are crucial to their character.

2 Imagery and description: Through their use of description, epithets contribute to vivid, imagistic word choices that paint a clearer picture of people, places, or things in a reader’s mind.

3 Memorability and rhythm: In poetry and prose, epithets can enhance the rhythm and flow of the text, as well as the sound quality when spoken aloud.

4 Symbolism: Epithets can carry symbolic meanings or represent larger themes within a literary work, imbuing the text with deeper layers of meaning.

5 Cultural and historical context: Epithets often reflect the cultural or historical context of a literary work, denoting societal norms, beliefs, or values.

Homer’s two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, may be the best-known examples in literature of the use of fixed epithets (epithets that are repeated in the same form). Some of the epithets used for the main characters in The Odyssey are prudent Penelope, sound-minded Telemachus, and many-minded Odysseus.

In fact, Odysseus in those two books may win the award for receiving the most epithets in all of literary history. He’s referred to as master of stratagems, crafty, resourceful, the equal of Zeus in counsel, of the many designs, the great tactician, godlike, the wily field commander, sacker of cities, the spear-famed, much-devising, great-hearted, Zeus-spring, and patient-hearted. And the list goes on!

What are the different types of epithets?

Since epithets can relay both positive and negative connotations, it’s important to know how to distinguish between the various types. There are three types of epithets you’ll encounter most often in literature and in conversation:


Also called a Homeric epithet, a fixed epithet is consistently repeated throughout a text to emphasize certain qualities of a subject. These types of epithets are so closely associated with a subject that they almost become inseparable from them. This means they firmly “fix” the identity of a subject in the reader’s mind, such as The Sun King for Louis XIV of France or The Maid of Orleans for Joan of Arc.


An argumentative epithet is a type of rhetorical device used in debate or to be persuasive. They are typically used to evoke emotion, create bias, or sway the audience or the reader toward a particular opinion of a subject. For example, saying your boss is prone to “reckless spending” or has “draconian rules” about remote working instantly conveys a negative perception of them, evoking a critical tone. While this type of writing can be powerful in persuasive writing and speech, argumentative epithets should be used with care. Because they reflect the speaker or writer’s bias and can affect the audience’s understanding, they aren’t advisable in material that’s meant to be neutral or objective.


A kenning is an epithet that metaphorically describes a person, place, or thing. Kennings are often two-word phrases that replace a common noun with a descriptive phrase, usually in the form of a compound word. A widely used poetic device, kennings are used to add imagery, complexity, and richness to writing. Examples are battle-sweat for blood, wave-steed for a ship, and sky-candle for the sun.

How to use epithets in writing

If you’re thinking about trying out an epithet or two in your own writing, it’s important to be selective. Make sure the epithet contributes to the overall tone and meaning of your writing. It should fit naturally within the context of your prose rather than appearing unexpectedly and confusing your reader.

Additionally, it’s key to choose epithets that engage the reader’s senses and evoke emotion. By employing well-chosen descriptive language, you can paint a clear and clever picture that really immerses the reader in a scene.

There are also several mistakes you’ll want to avoid when it comes to epithets. For one, don’t overuse epithets in your writing, as this can distract readers and dilute their impact. Two, don’t be afraid to get creative! When using epithets, you can have fun experimenting with figurative language and wordplay to evoke poetic undertones. Lastly, avoid overly flowery epithets that readers won’t likely understand. If it feels forced and unnecessary, it probably is.

Epithet examples

While epithets can be used in all types of media, communication, and language, they are most often seen in literature. Here are several examples of epithets in famous literary works:

  • In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macduff addresses another character as hell-hound, saying, “Turn, hell-hound, turn!” Rather than describing him as evil or devilish, this epithet creates a vivid picture of a demonic hound, which is more memorable.
  • In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the pigs is called Comrade Napoleon. This epithet emphasizes the pig’s leadership role and communist ideology, hearkening back to the notorious historical figure Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the titular character is described as the plain, obscure governess. This epithet communicates Jane’s humble beginnings and unassuming nature.

Epithet FAQs

What is an epithet?

Epithets are characterizing words or phrases firmly associated with a person or thing and are typically used in place of an actual name or title. More than a simple adjective, epithets attribute a specific quality or characteristic to what is being described.

Why do writers use epithets?

Writers use epithets for various reasons, including highlighting a character trait, adding imagery, enhancing rhythm, representing a larger theme, or reflecting a cultural or historical context. In literature, they often make writing more layered, descriptive, and evocative.

What are the different kinds of epithets?

There are three main types of epithets: fixed, argumentative, and kenning.

What are some examples of epithets?

Some examples of epithets are: a dog is a man’s best friend, Alexander the Great, and The City of Lights.

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