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An epithet (Greek and Latin epitheton; literally meaning 'imposed' ) is a descriptive word or lapidary phrase, often metaphoric, that is essentially a reduced or condensed appositive. Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name, as what might be described as a glorified nickname. Not every adjective is an epithet, even worn clichés. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage and some are not otherwise employed.

Some epithets are known by the Latin term epitheton necessarium because they are required to distinguish the bearers, e.g. as an alternative to ordinals after a prince's name - say Richard the Lionheart, or Charles the Fat alongside Charles the Bald. Still the same epithet can be used repeatedly, in different spheres of life and/or joined to different names, say Alexander the Great as well as Suleiman 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 the armsbearer of Aeneas, his main hero, fidus Achates, the epithet being fidus, which means faithful or loyal. In contemporary usage, an epithet often is an abusive or defamatory phrase.

There are also specific types of epithets, such as the kenning, also known as periapsis, which appears in works such as Beowulf. An example of a kenning would be the term whale-road.


In Ancient Pagan religions, not only Greek and Roman (e.g. Egyptian), a deity's epithet (or rather each one : especially the main gods often had many) generally reflected a particular aspect of that god's life and role, as Apollo Musagetes is "Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses" and therefore patron of the arts & sciences (hence the word mouseion = museum !), while Phoibos Apollo is the same deity but as shining sun-god. Some epithets were applied to several deities, rather accidentally if they had a common characteristic, or deliberately emphasizing their blood- or other ties; thus in pagan Rome, several divinities (including heroes) were given the epitheton Comes as companion of another (usually major) divinity. Alternatively the epithet may identify a particular and localized aspect of the god, sometimes already ancient during the classical epochs of Greece and/or Rome, such as a reference to the mythological place of birth or other genesis. It often appears to refer simply to a main center of veneration and/or some cultic tradition there, but often this is actually the result of an intercultural equation of a divinity with another, usually older, that is generally considered its pendant; thus most Roman gods and goddesses, especially the twelve main ones, had traditional counterparts in Greek, Etruscan and most other Mediterranean pantheons : Jupiter as father of the Gods with Zeus, Mercury as divine messenger with Hermes, etc., but in specific cult places there may even be a different equation, based on one specific aspect of the divinity. Similar practices still exist in Christianity (catholic and orthodox, not protestant) in the veneration of Christ and, mainly, of the saints, e.g. Our Lady of Lourdes, - of Mercy etc.


Epithets are characteristic of the style of ancient epic poetry, most notably that of Homer. See 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" with a kind of mock-epithet.


An epithet is a word in the scientific name of an animal or plant, following the name of the genus and denoting a species, variety, or other division of the genus, e.g. the specific epithet.


Arisaema candidissimum - candidissimum is the epithet. Passiflora edulis var. flavicarpa - edulis and flavicarpa are epithets.

See also



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