Definition of Epithet

An epithet is a nickname or descriptive term that’s added to someone’s name that becomes part of common usage. For example, in the name Alexander the Great, “the Great” is an epithet. The definition of epithet has changed more recently and has come to mean something negative or derogatory; however, in general an epithet is a glorified nickname.

The word epithet comes from the Greek word epithetos, which means “attributed” or “added.” Indeed, an epithet is an added word or an attribution of certain qualities to a person.

Common Examples of Epithet

Throughout the ages, kings, queens, and other leaders have gained nicknames. This is both because they become so well-known by the populace and also because their given names are relatively common (think of all the King Henrys). Epithets were and are a way to distinguish them. Here are some great examples of epithets:

  • Culen of Scotland, the Whelp
  • Constantine XI, the Sleeping King
  • Constantine II of Greece, the King Without a Country
  • Christina of Sweden, the Snow Queen
  • Charles Howard, the Drunken Duke
  • Charles II, the Mutton-Eating Monarch
  • Philip Sydney, the Flower of Chivalry
  • Ivailo of Bulgaria, the Cabbage
  • Anund Jacob, the Coal-Burner
  • Ragnar Lodbrok of Sweden, the Hairy-Breeches
  • John I of Aragon, the Lover of Elegance
  • Ivan I of Russia, Moneybags
  • Constantius I, the Pale
  • Macbeth of Scotland, the Red King
  • Isabella, the She-Wolf of France
  • Ivan IV, the Terrible
  • Louis XVIII, the Unavoidable
  • Hugh Capet, Wearing a Cape

Nicknames are, of course, quite common amongst friends and with public figures. You can probably think easily of epithets you used to refer to friends or enemies. Some fields have many examples of epithets, such as in professional wrestling where you can encounter Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Andre the Giant, and Bret Hart, “The Excellence of Execution.”

Significance of Epithet in Literature

Epithet examples often give a certain legendary quality to a work of fiction and the characters therein. Indeed, epithets were a common part of Norse saga, as we will see below, which certainly are the stuff of legends. Other old tales also include epithets, such as stories about Richard the Lionheart or the Knights of the Round Table. Thus, many authors who write fantasy novels or series choose to use epithets for their characters to make them seem more like historical figures with storied pasts.

Examples of Epithet in Literature

Example #1

King Harald inherited the titles of his father Halfdan the Black and swore an oath not to cut or comb his hair until he had become sole king of Norway. He was called Harald Tangle-hair and became known as Fair-hair after unifying Norway.

(Egil’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson)

Examples of epithets can be found everywhere in the sagas of Iceland. In Viking culture it was common for people to have similar names and carry their fathers’ names as their last names (hence the proliferation of the suffix -son in almost all Scandinavian last names). Therefore, epithets were necessary to distinguish people when telling stories about them. Many sagas also include a short reason for how people attained their nicknames, such as in the above case of King Harald Tangle-hair, later known as King Harald Fair-hair. Here are some other epithet examples from Norse sagas:

  • Hunbogi the Strong
  • Thorstein the Black
  • Audun Halter-dog
  • Ketil Flat-nose
  • Hrolleif the Tall
  • Olaf the Red
  • Alfred the Great
  • Hallgerd Long-legs
  • Thora of the Embroidered Hand
  • Thorir Long-chin
  • Ljot the Dueller of Ingjaldssand
  • Unn the Deep-minded
  • Gest the Wise
  • Bjorn the Easterner

Example #2

Wulfgar spake, the Wendles’ chieftain,
whose might of mind to many was known,
his courage and counsel: “The king of Danes,
the Scyldings’ friend, I fain will tell,
the Breaker-of-Rings, as the boon thou askest,
the famed prince, of thy faring hither,
and, swiftly after, such answer bring
as the doughty monarch may deign to give.”

(Beowulf, anonymous)

In this example of epithet from the Old English epic Beowulf, the hero Beowulf has just entered the hall of King Hrothgar to request permission to fight the monster Grendel. The character Wulfgar is one of the local chieftains and responds to Beowulf using epithets for King Hrothgar such as “king of Danes,” “the Scyldings’ friend,” “the Breaker-of-Rings,” “the famed prince,” and “the doughty monarch.” The large list of epithets reveal just how widely beloved King Hrothgar truly is.

Example #3

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

The prologue to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains an interesting example of epithet. He refers to the doomed pair as “star-cross’d lovers.” Though this name is not as obvious as other nicknames that are found in legends and fantasy novels, this too is an epithet. “Star-cross’d” constitutes a descriptive term that Shakespeare coined solely for their love. Indeed, the adjective phrase has become so famous that this epithet has been used many times since for other doomed couples.

Example #4

“Radagast the Brown!” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. “Radagast the Bird-Tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-Maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

(The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)

J.R.R. Tolkien is one example of a modern-day author who used epithets in his works of fantasy to create a more legendary sense of the characters. In this excerpt from The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard is facing off against Gandalf, and uses many different epithets to refer to a different wizard, Radagast, as well as to Gandalf and to himself. Each wizard has his own color—Radagast is “the Brown,” Gandalf is “the Grey,” and Saruman is “of Many Colours.” This has some significance, as eventually Gandalf will reemerge as “the White,” showing how his powers have increased. Saruman uses epithets to denigrate Radagast’s powers, while magnifying his own.

Example #5

That arrow hit too close to the mark. “I learned from the White Bull and Barristan the Bold,” Jaime snapped. “I learned from Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, who could have slain all five of you with his left hand while he was taking with a piss with the right. I learned from Prince Lewyn of Dorne and Ser Oswell Whent and Ser Jonothor Darry, good men every one.”

“Dead men, every one.”

(A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin)

George R.R. Martin is another contemporary fantasy writer who has used many epithet examples for his characters to make them seem historically real and give them near-mythical qualities. In this excerpt, the adept sword fighter Jaime Lannister talks about the swordsmen who trained him, such as Barristan the Bold and Ser Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning. Jaime himself is known as the Kingslayer, an epithet he’d rather shed as it doesn’t give the full picture of his role in the the Mad King’s death. Martin uses many other epithets for his characters, such as the following:

  • Brienne the Beauty (a mocking epithet, as Brienne is famous for her physical unattractiveness)
  • The Sand Snakes
  • Robert Baratheon, the Usurper
  • Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton
  • Tyrion Lannister, the Imp
  • Lady Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns
  • Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers
  • Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight

Test Your Knowledge of Epithet

1. Which of the following statements is the best epithet definition?
A. A witty remark.
B. A glorified nickname.
C. A short quotation at the beginning of a book.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is the definition of epigram, and C is the definition of epigraph.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following is not an example of epithet?
A. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop
B. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived
C. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. Prince William is factually the Duke of Cambridge, and thus it is not a nickname.[/spoiler]

3. Which of these names is a real epithet from Norse saga?
A. Hallgerd Long-legs
B. Thorbard the Dumb-founded
C. Ugun Crazy-eyes
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]