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 americanfolklore.net (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.
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
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.