Tuesday, February 3, 2009


epithet [EP-uh-thet]
n. 1. a word or phrase applied to a person to describe a quality: “Richard the Lion-Hearted” is an epithet of Richard I; 2. a characterizing word or phrase firmly associated with a person or thing used in place of an actual name, title, or the like, as “man's best friend” for “dog;” 3. a word, phrase, or expression used invectively as a term of abuse or contempt, to express hostility, etc.

[Derives from Greek meaning something added; epi (upon) + thet (to put)]

I would guess for most of its history, epithet was primarily used in its first two senses: a descriptive phrase, like "the Great" in Alexander the Great; or as a characterizing phrase. Today, however, its common use is only with the third, meaning a slur.

It's unfortunate that we don't employ epithets in the first sense for our contemporary leaders. We had two recent presidents named George Bush. Once the second one was in office, he was distinguished primarily by his middle initial, George W. Bush, and his father was called "former President Bush." Now that they are both out of office, the latter designation doesn't clarify which George one means. A reasonable epithetic distinction could be made by calling them George Bush the Old and George Bush the Dumb. No one would have trouble figuring out which epithet applied to which George Bush.

Before looking this up, I didn't know that epithet could be used to mean "a phrase used in place of an actual name." There is another word, metonymy (pronounced mi-TON-uh-mee), very close in meaning. A metonymy is a metaphorical name: "the bottle" for "hard liquor" or "Washington" for "the U.S. government." There is yet another word, synecdoche (pronounced si-NEK-duh-kee), which can also be used for metonymy. A synecdoche is a usually figure of speech in which a part of a term is used for the whole ("society" instead of "high society") or a larger group is used for of its components ("use your head" for "use your brain"). However, another type of synecdoche is the same as the second sense of epithet. Using "lead" for "a bullet" is a synecdoche, a metonymy and in its second sense, an epithet.

As epithet is commonly used today, to mean a slur ("an insulting or disparaging remark"), it is almost always modified by "racial" or "ethnic" or by some other class of people prone to take offense. "Honkey" is a racial epithet. "Chink" is an ethnic epithet. The Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune recently reported this story:
MANATEE COUNTY - A Bradenton man was shot in the calf Thursday while riding his bicycle after a person yelled out a racial epithet.
Most epithets used to disparage, while vulgar, are not considered bad enough to bleep out of television shows. "Nigger" probably comes the closest. Most daily newspapers will replace "the n-word" with "a racial epithet," rather than spell out that obloquy ("a strongly condemnatory utterance; abusive language"). As such, an epithet is not generally a swearword ("a profane or obscene word"). Calling someone a dumb Pollock might be more offensive than calling him a shithead, but we allow ethnic epithets to be heard on the public airwaves, while we delete expletives ("exclamations that are profane, vulgar, or obscene") in order to assuage people who believe cursing should never be countenanced in the public square.

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