Monday, October 3, 2011

Definition of Words - Epithets

Richard I the Lionheart, King of EnglandImage via Wikipedia

Epithet is a term used in writing to qualify or define a specific quality of a person or thing. So, instead of using one word (adjective) writers use a phrase which contains two or more words, which makes the words an ‘adjectival phrase.’
The chalky white cliffs of Dover.
Silver snarling trumpets (John Keats in The Eve of St. Agnes).

Homeric epithets are adjectival terms —usually a compound of two words— that Homer used in in his epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. Through the years these epithets have become recurrent formulas for distinguishing a specific noun: fleet-footed Achilles, bolt-hurling Zeus, the wine-dark sea.

James Joyce in his Ulysses parodied the formula in his reference to "the snot-green sea."

Conventional epithets dentify historical or legendary figures, as in John the Landless, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Patient Griselda, and Richard the Lionheart.

An epithet can also function as an identifying phrase that stands in place of a noun: Alexan­der Pope's "the glittering forfex" is an epithet that evokes the scissors with which the Baron performs his despicable act in The Rape of the Lock (1714).

The frequent use of derogatory adjectives and phrases in invective and diatribes tends to make people think that epithets are always negative and uncomplimentary; not so, as it can be seen in the above examples.

Transferred epithets by contagion transmit meaning from qualifying adjectives to nouns other the ones they are properly attached to. Jorge Luis Borges used this figure with great effect: “the useless cry of a bird,” “the silent handkerchief of the strangled.”

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