Words are frequently mis-understood, especially in the heat of argument. How’s that for an understatement?
But when a word is mis-characterized due to an overabundance of abuse and ignorance, the mis-understanding is regrettable but correctable. Such is the case for the word epithet.
Epithet is a word commonly understood to mean a negative or abusive term which is “slung” (a verb usually attached to the word epithet) at someone when we are angry with them. In many cases it is an unfortunate characterization unable to be forgotten for a long time.
“You’re nothing but a sleazy whore!” is an epithet used all too frequently in arguments between couples when an infraction such as infidelity is suspected. Whore is such a hugely negative and demeaning characterization that it is not easily dismissed with an apology.
But it is a little-known fact that the word epithet is not uniquely negative. Its primary meaning, although not its most frequently acknowledged, is that of a characterization, such as “Richard the Lionhearted” or “Peter the Great.” Encyclopedia Brittanica makes a clear distinction between the usual depiction of epithet as being a negative, almost slanderous characterization of someone and a legitimate characterization which may be more positive than negative. The venerable resource guide says of epithet that it is
“…an adjective or phrase that is used to express the characteristic of a person or thing, such as Ivan the Terrible. In literature, the term is considered an element of poetic diction, or something that distinguishes the language of poetry from ordinary language. Homer used certain epithets so regularly that they became a standard part of the name of the thing or person described, as in “rosy-fingered Dawn” and “gray-eyed Athena.” The device was used by many later poets, including John Keats 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.”
Epithets are weapons when used in their more negative form. They are meant to be hurtful and damaging. When spoken in anger, they may, as I have said above, become regrettable characterizations which can be chalked up to emotion rather than intentional damage. But when employed in written materials, such as letters to the editor or op-ed pieces in a newspaper, epithets become less unintentional and more a weapon intended to do damage to someone. They are not easily forgiven or dismissed.
One use of epithets that is especially damaging is that of racial epithets. They are based upon characterizations and stereotypes that are meant to demean or diminish the quality of someone based upon their skin color or ethnicity. Such generalizations are over-statements of someone’s disdain for members of a particular race and are frowned upon in society. Some racial epithets are even banned by law and their use punishable by legal action.
In the recent presidential election campaign there was an abundance of epithet slinging, not all of it isolated to the Republican-Democratic conflicts. During the Republican primary season there were ample characterizations of opposing candidates which were unfortunate and, at times, irresponsible. They were soon dismissed when a final candidate was chosen, but it is hard to believe that they were forgotten.
President Obama was the recipient of a number of slurs and epithets, some of which were clearly related to his race. In many cases, it would seem, the “slinger” was more damaged by the use of an epithet than the “slingee.”
It would be hoped that the primary definition of the word epithet might replace the more common one when referring to the President of the United States. But only history will record those adjectives. It remains to be seen whether he is ascribed to be “The Great Peacemaker” or “The Divisive.” No matter which way that decision is made, it is clear that he is a historic figure, having broken the race barrier for the first time in the role of President of the United States.
Photo Credit: Theology 21