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What Is a Transferred Epithet?

By Emily Daw
Updated: May 23, 2024

A transferred epithet is a type of metaphorical language in which an adjective or other modifier is applied to something other than to what it literally refers. The concept is synonymous with hypallage and closely related to other literary terms, such as personification and metonymy. These epithets are often employed as rhetorical devices in poetry and other literature, but are also found in expressions in common usage.

The word "epithet" has several different meanings, which may make the phrase "transferred epithet" a bit confusing. The most common usage of the word refers to an insulting or disparaging phrase, as in "racial epithet." In this instance, however, epithet" has the mostly obsolete meaning of "expression" or "description." A transferred epithet, then, is a description that is transferred onto something else.

Often, this epithet is a form of personification, in which something non-human is described as having human emotions or characteristics. William Wordsworth, for instance, in his poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," refers to daffodils as "jocund company." In actuality, of course, daffodils cannot be jocund, or high-spirited, because they do not have feelings. The speaker of the poem is actually the one feeling jocund, but he transfers his feelings onto the daffodils.

This device may also be an example of metonymy, a type of figurative language in which one noun is substituted for something closely related to it. For instance, someone might refer to a "powerful throne." This is phrase metonymy because the word throne is used to refer to the king or queen who sits on the throne. It is also a transferred epithet because the adjective powerful refers grammatically to throne, while metaphorically referring to the ruler.

Due to the overlap between these various terms, some people may find it confusing to distinguish a transferred epithet from other forms of figurative language. There is a simple test, however, for a reader to determine whether a phrase contains this type of epithet. First, the reader should check to see if there is an adjective that refers grammatically to something that it cannot refer to literally. If so, the reader should determine if there is something else in the context, either stated or implied, that the adjective could describe. If some other person or object actually exhibits that characteristic, it is a transferred epithet; if not, it is some other type of metaphorical language.

Many everyday English expressions use these epithets. It is common to hear references to a "sleepless night," a "joyous occasion" or a "happy day." In reality, of course, these expressions refer what people experience, rather than what nights, occasions or days experience.

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