The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary








An epithet (Greek epitheton) is a descriptive word or phrase, often metaphoric, that is essentially a reduced or condensed appositive. Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name, such as Richard the Lionheart or Alexander the Great. In contemporary usage, epithet often means an abusive or defamatory phrase.

There are 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.

Not every adjective is an epithet, even worn clichés. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage and not otherwise employed. Sometimes the epithet is required to distinguish, say Charles the Fat from Charles the Bald.

A Greek deity's epithet may reflect a particular aspect of that god's role, as Apollo Musagetes is "Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses." Alternatively the epithet may identify a particular and localized aspect of the god, sometimes already ancient during the classical epoch of Greece. A goddess with many such epithets is Demeter.

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.


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

Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46