Defining epithets

I am always interested in new verbiage when it comes to literature, as I am sure you are, too. So, today, let us look at a brief description of an important tool in literature that means so many things.

What is an epithet?

An epithet is a literary device that uses a descriptor to describe a person, place, or object. These are also known as a “by-name” or “descriptive title” (

As Merriam-Webster defines it:

“A characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing” (Merriam-Webster).

Moreover, we categorize epithets a few ways, including a Kenning (a “bookworm”), a fixed (“repeat use of a word”), an argumentative (suggesting a “possible outcome”), and a “smear” (derogatory language).

But they can be a little trickier than that even. As writes: “An epithet can be harmless, a nickname that catches on … On the flipside, an epithet can be an abusive word or phrase that should never be used, like a racial epithet that offends and angers everyone.”

Here are a few examples of epithets from all the categories:

  • Richard the Lion-Heart
  • Trash panda (racoon)
  • The Piano Man (for Billy Joel)
  • Wine-dark sea
  • The Great Emancipator (for Abe Lincoln)

Works Cited