An epithet (from Greek: ἐπίθετον epitheton, neuter of ἐπίθετος epithetos, "attributed, added")[1] (word or phrase), accompanying or occurring in place of a name and having entered common usage. It has various shades of meaning when applied to seemingly real or fictitious people, divinities, objects, and binomial nomenclature. It can also be a descriptive title: for example, Pallas Athena, Alfred the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent or Władysław I the Elbow-high.

Epithet can also refer to an abusive, defamatory, or derogatory phrase.[2][3] This use as a euphemism is criticized by Martin Manser and other proponents of linguistic prescription.[4] Fowler complained that "epithet is suffering a vulgarization that is giving it an abusive imputation."[5]


Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name or appear in place of his or her name, as what might be described as a glorified nickname or sobriquet. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage. Not every adjective is an epithet. An epithet is especially recognizable when its function is largely decorative, such as if "cloud-gathering Zeus" is employed other than in reference to conjuring up a storm. "The epithets are decorative insofar as they are neither essential to the immediate context nor modeled especially for it. Among other things, they are extremely helpful to fill out a half-verse", Walter Burkert has noted.[6]

Some epithets are known by the Latin term epitheton necessarium because they are required to distinguish the bearers, e.g. as an alternative to numbers after a prince's name—such as Richard the Lionheart (Richard I of England), or Charles the Fat alongside Charles the Bald. The same epithet can be used repeatedly joined to different names, e.g. Alexander the Great as well as Constantine the Great.

Other epithets can easily be omitted without serious risk of confusion, and are therefore known (again in Latin) as epitheton ornans. Thus the classical Roman author Virgil systematically called his main hero pius Aeneas, the epithet being pius, which means religiously observant, humble and wholesome, as well as calling the armsbearer of Aeneas fidus Achates, the epithet being fidus, which means faithful or loyal.

There are also specific types of epithets, such as the kenning which appears in works such as Beowulf. An example of a kenning would be using the term whale-road instead of the word "sea".


Epithets are characteristic of the style of ancient epic poetry, notably in that of Homer or the northern European sagas (see above, as well as Epithets in Homer). When James Joyce uses the phrase "the snot-green sea" he is playing on Homer's familiar epithet "the wine-dark sea". The phrase "Discreet Telemachus" is also considered an epithet.

The Greek term antonomasia, in rhetoric, means substituting any epithet or phrase for a proper name, as Pelides, signifying the "son of Peleus", to identify Achilles. An opposite substitution of a proper name for some generic term is also sometimes called antonomasia, as a Cicero for an orator. The use of a father's name or ancestor's name, such as "Pelides" in the case of Achilles, or "Saturnia" in the case of the goddess Juno in Virgil's Aeneid, is specifically called a patronymic device and is in its own class of epithet.

In William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, epithets are used in the prologue, such as "star-cross'd lovers" and "death-mark'd love."

Epithets were in layman's terms glorified nicknames that could be used to represent one's style, artistic nature, or even geographical reference. They originated to simply serve the purpose of dealing with names that were hard to pronounce or just unpleasant.[7] It from there went to something that could be very significant assigned by elders or counterparts to represent one's position in the community or it could be a representation of whomever one wanted to be or thought he was.[8] The elegance of this movement was used throughout history and even modern day with many examples ranging from "Aphrodite the Heavenly & Zeus the Protector of Guests" all the way to "Johnny Football & King James".[7]

American comic books tend to give epithets to superheroes, such as The Phantom being "The Ghost Who Walks", Superman called "The Man of Steel", and "The Dynamic Duo" Batman and Robin, who are individually known as "The Dark Knight" and "The Boy Wonder".[9]

Additionally, epíteto, the Spanish version of epithet, is commonly used throughout poems in Castilian literature.


Descriptive bynames were given to a person to distinguish them from other persons of the same name. In England by-names were used during the period when the use of surnames had not been extensively adopted. As an example the Domesday Book of 1085 identifies 40 individuals with the given name of "Richard". Most (40%), such as "Richard of Coursey" are identified with a locational by-name, indicating where they came from, or in some cases where they lived. Others (25%), such as "Richard the butler" and "Richard the bald" are identified with an occupational or a personally descriptive by-name. Some of the individuals, such as Richard Basset, made use of what we would recognize as a surname.

The distinction between a by-name and a surname lies in the fact that the by-name is not usually heritable, and may change for any given person as his circumstances change. Richard the bald, for example, was presumably not always bald, and Richard of Brampton may not have always lived at Brampton.

The use of by-names did not end with the adoption of surnames. In some cases, before the adoption of middle names, government records, such as taxes lists, included persons with both the same given name and the same surname. This led to the use of by-names to further distinguish the person. For example one "John Smith" might be described as "John Smith of the mill", while another might be described as "John Smith the short".

See also