What Does Epithet Mean

What Does Epithet Mean

An epithet is a descriptive term for a person, place, or a thing that have come into common usage. It is usually based on a real characteristic of the person or name. Epithet can also be described as a glorified nickname. The term epithet comes from Greek epitheton, means attributed and added. As this meaning suggests, an epithet is an attributed name.

Epithets help us to identify and distinguish people. For example, think of the kings and emperors of the past. Names like Henry, Richard, William, etc. are very common in history. Therefore, epithets that refer to some of their qualities become very helpful.

Examples of Epithets

Richard the Lionheart

William the Conqueror

Suleiman the Magnificent

Alexander the Great

Alexis I the Quiet

Macbeth of Scotland, the Red King

Alfred the Great

Isabella, the she-wolf of France

Ivan IV, the Terrible

Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator

Michael Jackson, the King of Pop

What Does Epithet Mean

Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen

Epithets often add a certain legendary quality to a character. Many old works of literature such as Beowulf, Homer’s Odyssey, Arthurian legends, etc. contain many examples of epithets. Today, many writers of historical and fantasy fiction use epithets.

  • In J.K Rowling’s famous Harry Potter, Harry is known by the epithet ‘the Boy Who Lived’.

“He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!” 

  • George R.R. Martin is another contemporary author who uses epithets to make his characters seem more historically real. Robert Baratheon – the Usurper, Ramsay Snow – the Bastard of Bolton, Tyrion Lannister – the Imp, Loras Tyrell – the Knight of Flowers, Jamie Lannister – the King Slayer are some more examples of epithets used by the author.

“That arrow hit too close to the mark. “I learned from the White Bull and Barristan the Bold,” Jaime snapped. “I learned from Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, who could have slain all five of you with his left hand while he was taking with a piss with the right. I learned from Prince Lewyn of Dorne and Ser Oswell Whent and Ser Jonothor Darry, good men every one.”

“Dead men, every one.”

  •  J.R.R. Tolkien also uses epithets in his fantasy novels, the Lord of the Ring Trilogy. This use of epithets has helped him to create a sense of history and legend. Given below is an excerpt from The Fellowship of the Ring.

“Radagast the Brown!” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. “Radagast the Bird-Tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-Maker, Saruman of Many Colours!” 

Image Courtesy:

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I By Nicholas Hilliard (Details of artist on Google Art Project) – VgG8ronTPh8jDg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia 

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