Everyone has epithets, even though we’re probably not aware of most of them. Some might be unflattering, but we could be pleasantly surprised by positive descriptive phrases people associate with our names.
First, it’s necessary for us to clear the air. Although the modern usage of the word “epithet” is usually negative, that is not the sole—or even primary—use of epithet. Far from being derogatory, most epithets are affirming. That’s because “epithet” is derived from the Greek verb epitithenai which simply means “to put on.” Basically, an epithet is anything that’s added to a person’s name to distinguish them as a particular individual.
Let me offer a simple quiz. What common epithet is often linked to all of the following historical figures?
Charlemagne, King of the Franks
Catherine, the Empress of Russia
Peter, Tsar of Russia
Alexander, the King of Macedonia
Kamehameha I, King of Hawaii
Constantine I, first Christian Emperor of Rome
Frederick, King of Prussia
Rhodri, King of Gwynedd
We can expand this list with several historical figures recorded in the holy Scriptures:
Herod, King of Judea
Cyrus, Founder of the Persian Empire
Darius, Third Shahanshah of the Persian Empire
Obviously, I provided far more options than necessary for you to discern the common epithet. Each of them is, of course, called “the Great.” (Bonus points to anyone recognizing Rhodri the Great; I assume only Mere Inkling’s Welsh readers will know who he was.)
If you think my list is lengthy, check out the wikipedia list of people referred to as “the Great.” And feel free to supplement it, if you recall someone they missed.
A common Christian epithet is “Apostle.” It’s not really a title, though it’s frequently used that way, especially when applied to the original fourteen.⁑ This Orthodox Christian website provides a list of early missionaries who earned the same epithet, including Patrick the Apostle to Ireland and Ansgar, the Apostle to the North.
Back to the Question
So, given that epithets can be neutral or positive, are you aware of any of yours? Our ten grandchildren are developing wonderful senses of humor. I’ve joked with them all ever since they were tiny. More than once they’ve called me their “Funny Grandpa.” That’s an epithet I can be proud of.
Back in my high school years, because I spoke with (assumed) authority on nearly any subject, a couple people called me the “Voice of Experience.” Which just reminded me—literally, as I was typing this—that back at my first active duty assignment, our wing commander publicly bestowed on me an epithet.
There at Reese Air Force Base we were conducting our very first Military Tattoo ceremony. Quite unexpectedly, after doing the yeoman’s work* in composing the lengthy ceremony, he selected me to be the emcee for the extravagant community event. The event flowed flawlessly. The next day, Colonel (later General) Lillard referred to me as the “Voice of Reese.” My wife was suitably impressed!
Now, I have no doubt I’ve accumulated a number of pejorative epithets during my life as well. The good thing about those though, is that people usually don’t share them to our face.
As for your own epithets, you might think of words that friends repeatedly use to describe you. If you’ve been called humble, trustworthy, brave, patient or witty by more than one person, you might be surprised to learn how many others associate that trait with you as well. Talented and smart are also common appellations from those who admire your your various skills or intellect. Sensitive is a nice epithet to own, although I confess it’s seldom applied to me.
Ruth Pitter, C.S. Lewis’ Friend
Pitter (1897-1992) was a highly regarded British poet. Living in artistic circles, it’s unsurprising that she describes her early life as “bohemian.” Bohemians tend to regard that epithet as admirable, while practical people such as myself consider it a negative term. Bohemian, of course, refers to “socially unconventional” behavior which may cover a multitude of alternative lifestyles.
Pitter, however, was also a friend of C.S. Lewis. And it was through his writings and their conversations that she became a Christian. In 1985, two decades after his death, she wrote,
As to my faith, I owe it to C.S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.
At one point in Lewis’ life he said although he was a confirmed bachelor, if he were to propose marriage, it would be to Ruth.
The two writers often critiqued one another’s works. In 1946, Lewis sent the following letter to Pitter. I reproduce the first half of it here not for its content per se, but because of its literary use of the word “epithet.” Presumably, seventy years ago its deprecatory usage had not gained dominance. (What strikes me as the most amazing thing about this letter, is the way in which the two share such a comprehensive knowledge that Lewis did not even need to cite the sources of the quotations to which he refers!)
Dear Miss Pitter–
Certainly a great many good lines have an epithet in them and depend principally on that epithet. But by no means all. Sometimes the work is done by a special use of a Noun:
multosque per annos sustentata ruet moles et machina mundi. (a)
how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes. (b)
sometimes by a verb:
J’ai mendiee la mort chez les peuples sauvages (c)
—where to get the effect one would almost have to translate “I have begged death as bread.” Or
Forever climbing up the climbing wave (d)
Though here something else, the “Figure” of repetition, comes in. Sometimes it turns on a Noun metaphorical:
Oh my America, my Newfoundland! (e)
Again and again it turns on Metaphor:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. (f)
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast. (g)
But I beneath a rougher sea
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he. (h)
But in all these there is something you may regard as equivalent to an epithet. There is another kind of poetry which seems to do it by simple statement:
Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings on yonder bough. (i)
Twenty days and twenty nights
They went in red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon
But heard the roaring of the sea. (j)
No one will say that bonnie in the first or red in the second has much to do with the result. One might at a pinch say that the apostrophe to a bird in the first and the whole myth in the second are the same kind of thing as an epithet. But then there are still passages where the statement is of the most factual kind and yet (in its context) it is very poetry:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle (k)
Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles
Cum uentitabas quo puella ducebat
Amata tantum quantum amabitur nulla. (l)
Oh, and what about the chansons de gestes?
Roland is dead. God has his soul to Heaven (m)
(Roland est mort. Dieux en ad l’anme aux cieulx)
Paien unt tort et Chestien unt dreit
(Paynims [non-Christians] are wrong and Christians are right) (n)
The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection.
And Finally, For Dessert
That was a lengthy quotation—particularly for readers who don’t thrive on poetry or literary criticism. Here, however, is a delightful use of the word epithet from C.S. Lewis’ youth. In a 1915 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis gently chides him for his application of an “impertinent epithet.”
It may be true that it is easier to assign music to people we know, than to conjure up people to fit the music, but I deny that anyone’s character is really unlike their appearance. The physical appearance, to my mind, is the expression and result of the other thing—soul, ego, psyche, intellect—call it what you will. And this outward expression cannot really differ from the soul.
If the correspondence between a soul & body is not obvious at first, then your conception either of that soul or that body must be wrong. Thus, I am “chubby”—to use your impertinent epithet, because I have a material side to me: because I like sleeping late, good food & clothes etc. as well as sonnets & thunderstorms.
* Yes, I’m consciously mixing my military metaphors. While I served as a USAF “airman,” the term yeoman is a junior Navy rating or rank (i.e. the people who do most of the work).
⁑ The original fourteen include Matthias, who replaced Judas, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Sources for the citations in Lewis’ letter to Pitter:
(a) Lucretius, De Rerum Natura: “The mighty and complex system of the world, upheld through many years, shall crash into ruins.”
(b) Robert Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Clothes” (1648).
(c) “I begged for death among the savages.”
(d) Tennyson, “The Lotus-Eaters” (1833).
(e) John Donne, Elegies, “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (c. 1595).
(f) Shakespeare, Sonnet 129 (1609).
(g) Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” (1649).
(h) William Cowper, “The Cast-Away.”
(i) Robert Burns, “The Banks o’ Doon” (1791).
(j) Thomas Rymer and Queen of Elfland.
(k) Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène: “Ronsard would sing my praise at the time when I was beautiful.”
(l) Catullus, Carmen: “Once the sun shone bright for you,/when you would go whither your sweetheart led,/she who was loved by me as none will ever be loved.”
(m) The Song of Roland (12th century).
(n) The Song of Roland.