AskDefine | Define epithet

Dictionary Definition



1 a defamatory or abusive word or phrase; "sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me" [syn: name]
2 descriptive word or phrase

User Contributed Dictionary



From , from ἐπίθετον, the neuter of ἐπίθετος, from ἐπιτιθέναι, from ἐπί + τιθέναι (from ).


  • /ˈɛp.ɪ.θɛt/, /"Ep.I.TEt/


  1. A term used to characterize a person or thing.
    The adjective Terrible in Ivan the Terrible.
  2. A term used as a descriptive substitute for the name or title of a person.
    The Young Pretender for Charles Edward Stuart.
  3. An abusive or contemptuous word or phrase.
    The term faggot referring to homosexuals.
  4. A word in the scientific name of a taxon following the name of the genus or species. This applies only to formal names of plants, fungi and bacteria. In formal names of animals an epithet does not occur.
    In Cannabis sativa the word sativa is a specific epithet.
    in Festuca ovina subsp. guestphalica the word guestphalica is an infraspecific epithet.


term used to characterize a person or thing
  • Dutch: toenaam, epitheton
  • French: épithète
  • German: Beiwort
  • Polish: epitet
  • Spanish: epíteto
term used as a descriptive substitute for the name or title of a person
  • Dutch: epitheton
  • French: épithète
  • German: Beiwort
  • Polish: epitet
abusive or contemptuous word or phrase
  • Dutch: scheldnaam, schimpnaam
  • German: Beiwort
  • Polish: epitet
word in the scientific name of a taxon following the name of the genus or species
  • Dutch: epitheton
  • German: Epitheton

See also

Extensive Definition

An epithet (Greek — ἐπίθετον and Latin — epitheton; literally meaning 'imposed') is a descriptive word or phrase that has become a fixed formula. It has various shades of meaning when applied to real or fictitious people, divinities, objects, and biological nomenclature.


In linguistics, an epithet is often metaphoric, essentially a reduced or condensed appositive. Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name or appear in place of their name, as what might be described as a glorified nickname. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage and some are not otherwise employed. Not every adjective is an epithet, even worn clichés: an epithet is especially recognizable when its function is largely decorative, as when "cloud-gathering Zeus" is otherwise employed than in conjuring up a storm. "The epithets are decorative insofar as they are neither essential to the immediate context nor modelled especially for it. Among other things, they are extremely helpful to fill out a half-verse", Walter Burkert has noted.
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 Catherine 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, epithet is also used to refer to an abusive or defamatory phrase, such as a racial epithet.
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 the term whale-road, meaning "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". Also the phrase "Discreet Telemachus" is considered an epithet.
  • the Greek term Antonomasia, in rhetoric, means substituting any epithet or phrase for a proper name, as Pelides, or the son of Peleus, for Achilles; the opposite substitution of a proper name for some generic term is also sometimes called antonomasia, as Cicero for an orator.


In many polytheistic religions, such as in ancient Greek and Roman religions, a deity's epithets, easily multiplied in the practice of cultus generally reflected a particular aspect of that god's essence and role, for which their influence may be obtained for a specific occasion: Apollo Musagetes is "Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses" and therefore patron of the arts and sciences while Phoibos Apollo is the same deity, but as shining sun-god. "Athena protects the city as polias, oversees handicrafts as ergane, joins battle as promachos and grants victory as nike."
Alternatively the epithet may identify a particular and localized aspect of the god, sometimes already ancient during the classical epochs of Greece or Rome, such as a reference to the mythological place of birth or numinous presence at a specific sanctuary: sacrifice might be offered on one and the same occasion to Pythian Apollo (Apollo Pythios) and Delphic Apollo (Apollo Delios). A localizing epithet refers simply to a particular center of veneration and the cultic tradition there, as the god manifested at a particular festival, for example: Zeus Olympios, Zeus as present at Olympia, or Apollo Karneios, Apollo at the Spartan Carneian festival.
Often the epithet is the result of fusion of the Olympian divinity with an older one: Poseidon Erechtheus, Artemis Orthia, reflect intercultural equations of a divinity with an older one, that is generally considered its pendant; thus most Roman gods and goddesses, especially the Twelve Olympians, had traditional counterparts in Greek, Etruscan, and most other Mediterranean pantheons, e.g. Jupiter as head of the Olympian Gods with Zeus, but in specific cult places there may even be a different equation, based on one specific aspect of the divinity. Thus the Greek word Trismegistos "thrice grand" was first used as a Greek name for the Egyptian god of science and invention, Thot, and later as an epitheton for the Greek Hermes and, finally, the fully equated Roman Mercurius (Mercury; both were also messenger of the gods). Among the Greeks, T. H. Price notesthe nurturing power of Kourotrophos might be invoked in sacrifices and recorded in inscription, without specifically identifying Hera or Demeter.
Some epithets were applied to several deities of a same pantheon, rather accidentally if they had a common characteristic, or deliberately emphasizing their blood- or other ties; thus in pagan Rome, several divinities (including demi-gods, heroes) were given the epitheton Comes as companion of another (usually major) divinity. An epithet can even be meant for collective use, e.g. in Latin pilleati 'the felt hat-wearers' for the brothers Castor and Pollux. Some epithets resist explanation.
Similar practices still exist in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in the veneration of Christ and, mainly, of the saints. "Our Lady of Lourdes" is essentially periphrasis, unless some aspect of the Virgin were being invoked.

Politics and military

In historical, journalistic, and other writings, one often encounters epitheta, but it is worthwhile distinguishing different types. While the same rationale as in the genealogical section above may apply, in some cases posthumously politicians, unlike ordinary citizens, often have some control over public opinion and generally more of an interest in their image, so whether forged for themselves or contrived by opponents, their epitheta often carry a political message.
Indeed while these differ from official titles as they don't express any legal status, epitheta have been awarded and adopted (though the official procedure may provide for the formal decision to be issued by another institution, such as a legislative assembly) by statesmen in power for fairly formal use, not unsimilar in purpose to various sinecures, knighthoods or peerage-type titles in post-feudal societies: they confer prestige without any legal authority, so essentially a matter of image or even propaganda, aimed at a domestic and/or foreign target audience. Examples of such epithets are the various traditions of victory titles (see there) awarded to meritous generals and rulers since Antiquity, and the epithets awarded to entire units, e.g. such adjectives as 'Fidelis' 'loyal' to various Roman legions.

Biological nomenclature

In botanical nomenclature, an epithet may be the part of the botanical name that designates the species of a genus, or sub-species: in two and three part names, the epithet will follow the name of the genus or the name of the species, respectively. This occurs in the name of a species (consisting of a generic name plus a "specific epithet"), of a subdivision of the genus, or of an infraspecific taxon, such as a variety. Epithets exist not only in the ICBN, but also in later Codes inspired by this such as the ICNCP and the ICNB.


In zoology the term epithet can be applied to both terms in the binomial nomenclature, first the genus name as generic epithet, second to specify the individual animal species the specific epithet.

Casual usage

In casual usage, epithet also means a derogatory word or phrase used to insult someone although this euphemistic use is discredited by Martin Manser and other prescriptive linguists.


epithet in Czech: Epiteton
epithet in German: Epitheton
epithet in Spanish: Epíteto
epithet in Esperanto: Epiteto
epithet in Galician: Epíteto
epithet in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Epitheto
epithet in Italian: Epiteto
epithet in Dutch: Epitheton
epithet in Norwegian: Epitet
epithet in Polish: Epitet
epithet in Portuguese: Epíteto
epithet in Russian: Эпитет
epithet in Finnish: Epiteetti
epithet in Swedish: Epitet
epithet in Ukrainian: Епітет
epithet in Slovak: Epiteton

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

abuse, appellation, appellative, binomen, binomial name, blackguard, byword, call names, catchword, cognomen, cryptonym, curse, cuss, cuss out, cuss word, damn, denomination, designation, device, dirty name, dirty word, dysphemism, empty title, epigraph, epithetize, eponym, euonym, expletive, foul invective, handle, honorific, hyponym, inscription, label, moniker, motto, name, namesake, naughty word, no-no, nomen, nomen nudum, oath, obscenity, profane oath, proper name, proper noun, revile, scientific name, secret name, slogan, style, swear at, swearword, tag, tag line, tautonym, title, trinomen, trinomial name, vilify, vituperate, watchword
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