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What Are the Different Types of Epithets?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated: May 23, 2024

Epithet is from the Greek word epitheton, meaning attributed to or added, and it refers to a word or phrase that accompanies a name or sometimes takes its place. Often, it has an historical reference and has been used so frequently that is synonymous with the person or entity it refers to. Alexander the Great used as the title for King Alexander III of Macedonia is one example. Epithets are also used in religion and literature, and for honoring military achievements. In linguistics, they are often used to distinguish between historical figures, particularly monarchs and other rulers.

In ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece and Rome, the gods had different attributes and specific roles they played in the lives of mankind. For instance, Apollo is the sun god but also rules over the muses and has a different name for each role. Worshiped as the sun god, he is Phoibus Apollo. When acting as a patron of the arts, he is Apollo Musegetes. In Christianity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is sometimes called Queen of Heaven or Cause of Our Joy.

In literature, the epithet was a convention of the epic poem or saga in many cultures and was used to describe nature and people. The epic poet Homer was fond of 'rosy-fingered dawn." In The Odyssey, his hero was "much-suffering Odysseus." In The Iliad, his Greek warrior-hero was "godlike Achilles," or "son of Peleus." In the Indian epic Ramayana, Sanskrit poet Valmiki's hero is "graceful souled Rama" and sometimes "best one among men Rama."

There are circumstances in which the use of an alternative name is required for clarity or to prevent confusion. In linguistics, these are known by the Latin phrase epitheton necessarium, as they are necessary to distinguish among people of the same name holding the same title. They are generally used instead of numbers when referring to monarchs. An example is the name Richard the Lionheart to refer King Richard I of England, or Catherine the Great for Catherine II of Russia. Unlike in Europe, Chinese rulers were not named and counted, but were given epithets referring to the throne so that their names were never used, which was culturally impermissible.

Honorary epithets are often bestowed upon individuals for some service to their country or achievements that bring honor to the country. They give the holder no powers, but they are a badge of esteem. In Western culture, these honors originated in military conquests. Victorious Roman generals were given names that reflected the peoples whom that had defeated. For instance, Africanus or Germanicus added to a general's name indicated victories over African or Germanic peoples.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Dec 11, 2012

@indigomoth - Well, that is the way that people use the word now. It's not really because the word is related to religion, but because it means a descriptor of something. So, if you say "those damn neighbors" you are adding what amounts to an epithet to their title.

But, of course, people misuse the word a bit now and the true meaning has been obscured by a lot of people to just mean swear words or slurs in general. From what I understand, linguists aren't very happy about this, but I think the idea of a formal epithet is just unfamiliar to most people these days and it's an evolution of the language for it to begin to mean something else.

By indigomoth — On Dec 10, 2012

I've always thought epithets are basically swear words. Like, when they describe someone swearing as letting off a "string of epithets". Which kind of makes sense, I guess, if the word originally was related to descriptions of Gods, since it seems like a lot of swearing is related to religion.

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