Great writers find ways to do away with superfluous language. Their prose is both precise and efficient in conveying meaning in a concise, yet vivid way. A great literary tool to achieve this is the epithet. While you may not yet be familiar with the epithet definition, you have probably heard or used one (or many) in your writing or conversations. Let’s learn more about the epithet definition and how it enriches language and literature. 

What Is an Epithet in Literature?

First, let’s define epithet

An epithet may appear to be similar to other simple language tools such as adjectives. However, they differ in a very specific function. To better understand this, let’s look at the epithet definition.

EPITHET DEFINITION

What is an epithet?

An epithet is a phrase or word used in accompaniment or in place of a person, place, or thing to describe or characterize it. More than a simple adjective, an epithet is used to attribute very specific qualities or characteristics to what is being described. The literary term derives from the Greek “epitheton” meaning “added” or “attributed.” More modernly, people often think of them as “nicknames” since the often replace the name of a person, place, or thing while also giving them specific attributes.

Types of Epithets:

  • Fixed
  • Kenning
  • Argumentative

Epithet Meaning

What is an epithet used for?

Epithets are used in both conversation and writing to vividly describe people, places, and things. Because they are phrased in a way that is figurative and often relatable, they can better or more accurately describe a character or setting in literature. 

What is an Epithet in Literature?

Take one of the most common epithet examples: “A dog is a man’s best friend.” You could describe a dog as loyal, comforting, protective, loving, and much more. However, to say “a man’s best friend” gives a clear understanding of what a dog can mean to a person. 

Epithet Definition and Types

Types of epithets

There are three types of epithets that exist within literature and conversation: fixed, kenning, and argumentative. Let’s take a look at the distinctions of each type and an example that puts it in action. 

Fixed

A fixed epithet, also called a Homeric epithet, is the repeated use of a word or phrase to describe the same person, place, or thing. These are called Homeric because they are commonly used in epic literature. 

For example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus is repeatedly called “many-minded.”

Kenning

A kenning is an epithet that metaphorically describes a person, place, or thing. Kennings are often two word phrases and formed to be specific. They are most commonly found in Old English poetry. A more modern kenning (often used as an insult) is the term “four-eyes” to describe someone with glasses. 

Kenning Poems

Argumentative

An argumentative epithet is used primarily to suggest a possible outcome of a situation. These types are often used by orators as a vivid and clear warning. 

For example, lawmakers may use argumentative epithets of past climate change repercussions to warn against specific legislation. 

what is an Epithet in LIterature?

Epithet examples in literature

To fully understand the value of this tool and what it can add to your writing, let’s take a look at some epithet examples in literature.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macduff describes another character as a “hell-hound.” Rather than describing them with an adjective such as devilish, demonic, or evil — the term “hell-hound” paints a vivid picture of the character while simultaneously eliciting emotion in the reader. Epithets are not only precise, but efficient at conveying meaning through fewer words. 

Up Next

What is a Metaphor? 

To enrich your writing, it is important to be both vivid and concise. Another great literary tool for achieving this is the metaphor. In our next article, we dive into the world of metaphors and how they can be used to up-level your writing. 

Up Next: Metaphor Explained →
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