Monday Metaphor: Epithet: “A rose by any other name… ‘

Even if a person has a perfectly nice name, someone else is going to come along a give him a nickname. There are many reasons for this. Often, when a baby is born, the parents will talk baby talk to him and this extends into a nickname. Witness the many “Bubba”s in the South. That kind of nickname is given out of affection. An attributed, added, or byname is officially an epithet. It brings out a characteristic of the person, or distinguishes him from someone else of the same name, or is used to elevate poetic diction.

Faith McFadden, On Suite 101, says, “The uses of epithets are endless, and they can be a writer’s best friend. For not only do they allow a writer to vary how he refers to a character, but also they can create a special emphasis on the character to whom the epithet belongs.”

There are a number of different kinds of epithets. It is believed by scholars that Homer used epithets as a mnemonic device. Recall “rosy-fingered” dawn, “swift-footed” Achilles, and the “resourceful Odysseus, master mariner.” And not to forget the ladies: there were “lovely-haired” Helen and “white-armed Andromache” the wife of Hector, “tamer of horses and the shepherd of the people.”

John Keats honored Homer by using the epic poet’s own device in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

                                    Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
                                    That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne.

In children’s stories, “Little Goody Two Shoes” (which might have been written by Oliver Goldsmith) is a story about an orphan girl who has only one shoe. When she gets a second shoe, she exclaims, “Two shoes!” and is thereafter called “Little Goody Two Shoes.” After working hard as a teacher, she marries well and is considered a worthy person.

Now days, the epithet “goody two-shoes” is usually used in a disparaging way, to denote a person who does good only for show. Other disparaging slurs have been used to denote particular groups, such as people of color, or of a specific religion, or place of origin.

Recently a new edition of Huck Finn by Mark Twain was published with the racial epithets altered or erased. This caused some controversy among purists; even black students in my granddaughter’s high school English classes felt the change was an overreaction—a plethora of political correctness.

The article in this link deals with ways to portray ethnic differences.


This is a tall tale excerpt from (with a bit of hyperbole):

“Davy Crockett done married the prettiest, the sassiest, the toughest gal in the West, don’t ya know! Her name was Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind and she was all that and then some! She was tougher than a grumpy she-bear and faster than a wildcat with his tail on fire and sweeter than honey, so that even hornets would let he use their nest for a Sunday-go-to-Meeting hat.”


Sobriquet, a synonym for nickname, “but a nickname which is familiar enough such that it can be used in place of a real name without the need of explanation.” (Wikipedia)

I use the term in my story, “The Miracle of the Elephants”:

Ranil ran around to the driver side of the vehicle. “If you’re who I think you are, mister, you got here just in time.”

            “And who do you think I am, youngster?” asked the man with smiling eyes.

            “I think you are Mr. Elliepooh. . . . I mean, Mr. Karl Wald.”

            The man laughed out loud at the sound of his soubriquet. “If you know who I am, then you must be Ranil.” The man held out his hand and Ranil, a broad smile on his face, put his brown hand into the white one.

            “Welcome to Sri Lanka, sir.”

The Great Gilly Hopkins, the central character in the book by the same name, is an eleven-year-old girl who is in foster care, having been abandoned by her mother. The mother is a flower child of the 1970s who names her daughter Galadriel, after a character in The Lord of the Ring books by J. R. R. Tolkien. Gilly chooses her own moniker.

Some epithets are of the necessary type. The help to distinguish persons, places, or things so they are not confused with others. Giving monarchs epithets is of this type. For instance, King Richard the Lionhearted, Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great, Charles the Bald and Charles the Fat. Geoffrey III of Anjou was known as the Bearded.

Famous people:

George Herman Ruth: Babe

William Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon

Bruce Springsteen: The Boss

Louis Armstrong: Satchmo

Elizabeth I: Good Queen Bess

John Wayne: The Duke

Famous places:

New York: The Big Apple

New Orleans: The Big Easy

Ireland: The Emerald Isle

Chicago: The Windy City

Detroit: Mo Town

Jaipur, India: Pink City

Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: The Twin Cities

Pseudonyms are often used to hide an individual’s real identity, as with writers’ pen names. One of the most famous pen names is that of Mark Twain for Samuel Taylor Clemens. A children’s writer who used pseudonyms is Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss or Theo LeSieg, Rosetta Stone, Theophrastus Seuss, and Peter Pessimist. The name Ellery Queen was used to identify both the sleuth and the author of the Ellery Queen novels. But Ellery Queen was actually two people: Daniel Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay, and his cousin, Manford Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee. (Don’t know when they used the aliases).

Though a rose by any other name is still a rose, using epithets in your writing can add interest and variety.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    Jun 06, 2011 @ 06:33:28

    What a fun post! I enjoyed it so much. This usage of English words and phrases is so rich, and these are fine examples. Many thanks, Barbara.


  2. Karen Cote
    Jun 06, 2011 @ 09:20:59

    This was so much fun! Great post. Sure had my mind turning which is quite something given the hour here. Thought provoking and certainly made me smile. Thank you.


  3. Susan Berger
    Jun 06, 2011 @ 15:09:54

    Thanks Barbara. Very edifying


  4. Barbara Bockman
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 00:11:51

    Hi Nancy, Karen, and Susan,

    I’m glad you enjoyed my examples. Epithets surely can spruce up a story.


  5. Barbara Ehrentreu
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 11:05:33

    Barbara, great post! I learned so much and it started me wondering about how I used epithets in my own writing. I particularly enjoyed the link to children’s multicultural literature. Lots of fun and definitely got me thinking.


  6. Barbara Bockman
    Jun 07, 2011 @ 23:52:33

    Barbara, I will be reading If I Could be Like Jennifer Taylor (hope I got that right) pretty soon. I’m eager to see your style.


  7. Donna McDine
    Jun 09, 2011 @ 16:20:53

    Terrific post. You’ve taught me quite a bit today. Thanks!

    Children’s Author
    Write What Inspires You Blog
    The Golden Pathway Story book Blog
    Donna M. McDine’s Website


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