The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Epithet: An adjective or phrase applied to a noun to accentuate a certain characteristic.

EXAMPLES: The Founding Fathers; Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen; blundering fool; male chauvinist pig. “The Great” (or a version thereof) is a common epithet, applied to figures as varied as the fourth-century B.C. Macedonian king Alexander III (“Alexander the Great”), eighteenth-century Russian empress Catherine II (“Catherine the Great”), and American boxer Muhammad Ali (“The Greatest”).

Epithets are often applied to professional athletes, political figures, and geographical areas. Examples include “Magic” Johnson and “Air” Jordan (basketball players Earvin Johnson and Michael Jordan), “Tricky Dick” and the “Teflon President” (presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan), the Land of the Rising Sun and Land of the Midnight Sun (Japan and Norway), and the Big Apple and Windy City (New York City and Chicago). Sometimes epithets carry derogatory connotations, such as “crony capitalist,” “feminazi,” and “Uncle Tom.”

In H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895), the narrator uses epithets to refer to all but one of the characters who frequent the Time Traveller’s — itself an epithet — house every Thursday evening: the Medical Man, the Provincial Mayor, the Editor, the Psychologist, the Very Young Man, and so forth. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954—55; adapted to film 2001—03), the wizard Gandalf, known as “Gandalf the Grey,” becomes “Gandalf the White” after he is brought back from the dead. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series (1997—2007; adapted to film 2001—11), Harry, the protagonist, is known as “The Boy Who Lived,” whereas his nemesis, the villain Voldemort, is known as “The Dark Lord.”