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Epithets

A few thoughts on the Epitheton Ornans, or ornamental epithet. This is more than a nickname, but a formalized word or phrase associated with a person. Classical epic poetry makes heavy use of this rhetorical device. For example, in Homer Achilles is often referred to as “podas okus” or “swift-footed”, whereas Agamemnon is often “anax andron” or “ruler of men”. There is internal evidence that these poems used a stock list of epithets of different lengths and stress paterns to fit into whatever metrical context was needed. In this way, the epithets could aid improvized oral performance, much as a jazz musician has a repetoire of riffs and chord progressions at his command which can be inserted to fill out a phrase.

The Romans allowed the honor of an “agnomen” for significant military victories. So Publius Cornelius Scipio, after defeating the Carthaginian Hannibal, became Scipio Africanus. Over the centuries, this trend escalated. So, by the 4th Century A.D., we have awe-inspiring names such as “Imperator Constantinus Maximus Augustus Persicus maximus, Germanicus maximus, Sarmaticus maximus, Britannicus maximus, Adiabenicus maximus, Medicus maximus, Gothicus maximus, Cappadocicus maximus, Arabicus maximus, Armenicus maximus, Dacicus maximus”. (Today We just call him “Constantine the Great” which is a great time-saver)

The trend continued. If you’ve seen an old British penny, from 100 years ago, you would read the legend “VICTORIA D G BRITT REG F D”, short for “Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of England, Defender of the Faith”.

But the use of epithets has been on the wane for many years now, at least in the optimistic parts of the world. North Korea may have its “Dear Leader” and the late “Great Leader”, but we never even considered formally naming Eisenhower “The German Slayer”. We ended up with “Ike”. I guess we like our leaders to be mere men, and not gods. The Cult of Personality is difficult to maintain in a democracy with a free press. “No man is a hero to his butler”.
Sure, we have our little nicknames, “The Artist formally known as Prince”, “Iron” Mike Tyson or the “Scud Stud”, but that is done in jest, or in the entertainment world (which amounts to the same thing). We will never see “Scud Stud” carved in marble or engraved in brass.

But once a year, on this date (or the nearest Monday) I am reminded of the most prominent example of epitheton ornans in common use today. I refer to the ubiquitous use of the phrase “Slain Civil Rights Leader”. The fact that I do not need to name the owner of this epithet demonstrates its currency. A search of Google News shows almost 1,500 uses of this phrase in recent press clips. This epithet is so tightly associated with him that can be used as a substitue for his name, much as a medieval scholar could speak of “the Philosopher” to refer to Aristotle without ambiguity.

I’m trying to think of any other prominent examples of such epithets in common use today. I can’t think of any. Can you?

One wonders how long this epithet will remain? Will it outlast the generation that heard his message and headed his Dream? We can hope so. But I do note that in the generation after the assasinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinnley, all three were popularly acclaimed with the epithet “our martyred president”. But a search of Google News shows zero hits for “martyred president”, though there are 271 hits for “President Lincoln”.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Siobhan 2012/02/06, 07:35

    I think that whilst there aren’t much in modern use unless, as you say, they’re used in jest. There is, however, a real move in fiction, role-play and world-building to bring back epithets. Even in something as popular as Harry Potter the epithet “The Half-Blood Prince” and in the Song of Ice and Fire “The Imp” and “Kingslayer” are prominent figures that are from the same family.

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