Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of epithet?

The definition of epithet is a descriptive word or phrase that is added to—or replaces—the proper name of a person or object.


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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

An epithet is a word or phrase used to describe someone or something, either replacing the subject’s name or being appended to it as an adjective. An epithet can describe, praise, or criticize its subject. Many epithets are sufficiently recognizable to replace their subjects without causing confusion.

Epithet derives from the Greek word epitheton, meaning “something added,” from epi (“upon”) and tithenai (“to put”).

Examples of epithets can be found throughout Homer’s The Odyssey. In book 1, he uses the epithet “winde-dark sea,” which has become widely used beyond the scope of his own work:

And here I’ve come, just now, with ship and crew,
sailing the wine-dark sea to foreign ports of call,
to Temese, out for bronze—our cargo gleaming iron.

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