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The Epithet

From the strongest means of displaying the writer's or speaker's emotional attitude to his communication, we now pass to a weaker but still forceful means—t he epithet. The epithet is subtle and delicate in character; it is not so direct as the interjection. Some people even consider that it can create an atmosphere of objective evaluation, whereas it actually conveys the subjective attitude of the writer, showing that he is partial in one way or another.

The epithet is a stylistic device based, on, the interplay of emotive and logical meaning in an attributive word, phrase pr even stance used to, characterize an object and, pointing out to the reader, and frequently imposing on him some of the properties pr features of the object with the aim of giving an individual perception and evaluation pf these features or properties. The epithet is, markedly subjective and evaluative. The logical attribute is purely objective, non-evaluating. It is descriptive and, indicates, an inherent or prominent feature of a thing or phenomenon in question.

Thus, in 'green meadows, - -white snow', round table', blue skies, 'pale complexion', 'lofty mountains' and the like, the adjectives are more logical attributes than epithets. They indicate those qualifies of the objects which way be regarded as generally recognized|. But in wild wind, loud ocean, ‘remorseless dash of billows', 'formidable waves ' 'heart-burning smile', the adjectives do not point to inherent qualities of the objects described, They are subjectively evaluative.

The epithet makes a strong impact on the reader, so much so, that he, unwittingly begins to see and evaluate things as, the writer wants him to. Indeed, in such word-combinations as 'destructive charms', glorious sight', 'encouraging smile', the interrelation between logical and emotive meanings may be said to manifest itself in different degrees. the destructive has retained its logical meaning to a considerable extent, but at the same time an experienced reader cannot help perceiving the emotive meaning of the word which in this combination will signify “conquering, irresistible, dangerous'. The logical meaning of the word glorious in combination with, the word, sight has almost entirely faded out. Glorious is already fixed in dictionaries as a word having an emotive meaning alongside its primary, logical meaning. As to the word encouraging (in the combination 'encouraging smile') it is half epithet and half logical attribute. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation between epithet and logical attribute. In some passages the logical attribute becomes so strongly enveloped in the emotional aspect of the utterance that it begins to radiate emotiveness, though by nature it is logically descriptive. Take, for example, the adjectives green, white, blue, lofty (but somehow not round) in the combinations given above. In a suitable context they may all have a definite emotional impact on the reader. This is probably explained by the fact that the quality most characteristic of the given object is attached to it, thus strengthening the quality.

Epithets may be classified from different standpoints: semantic and structural. Semantically, epithets may be divided into two groups: those associated with the noun following and those unassociated with it.

Associated epithets are those which point to a feature which is essential to the objects they describe: the idea expressed in the epithet is to a certain extent inherent in the concept of the object. The associated epithet immediately refers the mind to the concept in question due to some actual quality of the object it is attached to, for instance, 'dark forest', 'dreary midnight', 'careful attention', 'unwearying research', 'indefatigable assiduity', 'fantastic terrors', etc.

Unassociated epithets are attributes used to characterize the object by adding a feature not inherent in it, i.e. a feature which may be so unexpected as to strike the reader by its novelty, as, for instance, 'heartburning smile', 'bootless cries', 'sullen earth', 'voiceless sands', etc. The adjectives here do not indicate any property inherent in the objects in question. They impose, as it were, a property on them which is fitting only in the given circumstances. It may seem strange, unusual, or even accidental.

In any combination of words it is very important to observe to what degree the components of the combination are linked. When they are so closely linked that the component parts become inseparable, we note that we are dealing with a set expression. When the link between the component parts is comparatively close, we say there is a stable word-combination, and when we can substitute any word of the same grammatical category for the one given, we note what is called a free combination of words.

With regard to epithets, this division becomes of paramount importance, inasmuch as the epithet is a powerful means for making the desired impact on the reader, and therefore its ties with the noun are generally contextual. However, there are combinations in which the ties between the attribute and the noun defined are very close, and the whole combination is viewed as a linguistic whole. Combinations of this type appear as a result of the frequent use of certain definite epithets with definite nouns. They become stable word-combinations. Examples are: 'bright face', 'valuable connections', 'sweet smile', 'unearthly beauty', 'pitch darkness', 'thirsty deserts', 'deep feeling', 'classic example', 'powerful influence', 'sweet perfume' and the like. The predictability of such epithets is very great.

The function of epithets of this kind remains basically the same: to show the evaluating, subjective attitude of the writer towards the thing described. But for this purpose the author docs not create his own, new, unexpected epithets; he uses ones that have become traditional, and may be termed "language epithets" as they belong to the language-as-a-system. Thus epithets may be divided into language epithets and speech epithets. Examples of speech epithets are: 'slavish knees', 'sleepless bay'.

The process of strengthening the connection between the epithet and the noun may sometimes go so far as to build a specific unit which does not lose its poetic flavour. Such epithets are called ft x ed and are mostly used in ballads and folk songs. Here are some examples of fixed epithets: 'true love', 'dark forest', 'sweet Sir', 'green wood', 'good ship', 'brave cavaliers'.

Structurally, epithets can be viewed from the angle of a) composition and b) distribution.

From the point of view of their compositional structure epithets may be divided into simple, compound, phrase and sentence epithets. Simple epithets are ordinary adjectives. Examples have been given above. Compound epithets are built like compound adjectives. Examples are: 'heart-burning sigh', 'sylph-like figures', 'cloud-shapen giant',

"...curly-headed good-for-nothing,

And mischief-making monkey from his birth." (Byron)

The tendency to cram into one language unit as much information as possible has led to new compositional models for epithets which we' shall call phrase epithets. A phrase and even a whole sentence may become an epithet if the main formal requirement of the epithet is maintained, viz. its attributive use. But unlike simple and compound epithets, which may have pre- or post-position, phrase epithets are always placed before the nouns they refer to.

An interesting observation in this respect has been made by O. S. Akhmanova. "The syntactical combinations are, as it were, more explicit, descriptive, elaborate; the lexical are more of an indication, a hint or a clue to some previously communicated or generally known fact, as if one should say: 'You know what I mean and all I have to do now is to point it out to you in this concise and familiar way'."

This inner semantic quality of the attributive relations in lexical combinations, as they are called by O. S. Akhmanova, is, perhaps, most striking in the phrase and sentence epithets. Here the 'concise way' is most effectively used.

Here are some examples of phrase epithets:

"It is this do-it-yourself, go-it-alone attitude that has thus far held back real development of the Middle East's river resources." (N. Y. T. Magazine, 19 Oct., 1958.)

"Personally I detest her (Gioconda's) smug, mystery-making, come-hither-but-go-away-again-because-butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth expression." {New Statesman and Nation)

"There is a sort of 'Oh-what-a-wicked-wortd-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-tnake-it-beller-and-nobler' expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring the tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen." (Jerome K. Jerome, "Three Men in a Boat")

"Freddie was standing in front of the fireplace with a well-that’s-the-story-what-are-we-going-to-do-about-it air that made him a focal point." (Leslie Ford, "Siren in the Night")

An interesting structural detail of phrase and sentence epithets is that they are generally followed by the words expression, air, attitude and others which describe behaviour or facial expression. In other words, such epithets seem to transcribe into language symbols a communication usually conveyed by non-linguistic means.

Another structural feature of such phrase epithets is that after the nouns they refer to, there often comes a subordinate attributive clause beginning with that. This attributive clause, as it were, serves the purpose of decoding the effect of the communication. It must be noted that phrase epithets are always hyphenated, thus pointing to the temporary structure of the compound word.

These two structural features have predetermined the functioning of phrase epithets. Practically any phrase or sentence which deals with the psychological state of a person may serve as an epithet. The phrases and sentences transformed into epithets lose their independence and assume a new quality which is revealed both in the intonation pattern (that of an attribute) and graphically (by being hyphenated).

Another structural variety of the epithet is the one which we shall term r e v e r s e&. The reversed epithet is composed of two nouns linked in an of-phrase. The subjective, evaluating, emotional element is embodied not in the noun attribute but in the noun structurally described, for example: "the shadow of a smile"; "a devil of a job" (Maugham); "...he smiled brightly, neatly, efficiently, a military abbreviation of a smile" (Graham Green); "A devil of a sea rolls in that bay" (Byron); "A little Flying Dutchman of a cab" (Galsworthy); "...a dog of a fellow" (Dickens); "her brute of a brother" (Galsworthy); "...a long nightshirt of a mackintosh..." (Cronin)

It will be observed that such epithets are metaphorical. The noun to be assessed is contained in the of-phrase and the noun it qualifies is a metaphor (shadow, devil, military abbreviation, Flying Dutchman, dog). The grammatical aspect, viz. attributive relation between the members of the combination shows that the SD here is an epithet.

It has been acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult to draw a line of demarcation between attributive and predicative relations. Some attributes carry so much information that they may justly be considered bearers of predicativeness. This is particularly true of the epithet, especially genuine or speech epithets, which belong to language-in-action and not to language-as-a-system. These epithets are predicative in essence, though not in form.

On the other hand, some word-combinations where we have predicative relations convey so strongly the emotional assessment of the object spoken of, that in spite of their formal, structural design, the predicatives can be classed as epithets. Here are some examples:

'Fools that they are'; 'Wicked as he is.'

The inverted position of the predicatives 'fools' and 'wicked' as well as the intensifying 'that they are' and 'as he is' mark this border-line variety of epithet.

Some language epithets, in spite of opposition on the part of orthodox language purists, establish themselves in standard English as conventional symbols of assessment for a given period. To these belong words we have already spoken of like terrible, awful, massive, top, dramatic, mighty, crucial (see p. 66).

From the point of view of the d i s t r i b u t i o n of the epithets in the sentence, the first model to be pointed out is the s t r i n g of epithets. In his depiction of New York, O. Henry gives the following string of epithets:

"Such was the background of the wonderful, cruel, enchanting, bewildering, fatal, great city;"

Other examples are: a plump, rosy-cheeked, wholesome apple-faced young woman (Dickens); "a well-matched, fairly-balanced give-and-take couple." (Dickens)

As in any enumeration, the string of epithets gives a many-sided depiction of the object. But in this many-sidedness there is always a suggestion of an ascending order of emotive elements. This can easily be observed in the intonation pattern of a string of epithets. There is generally an ascending scale which culminates in the last epithet; if the last epithet is a language epithet (great), or not an epithet (young), the culminating point is the last genuine epithet. The culminating point in the above examples is at fatal, apple-faced and give-and-take.

Another distributional model is the transferred epithet. Transferred epithets are ordinary logical attributes generally describing the state of a human being, but made to refer to an inanimate object, for example: sick chamber, sleepless pillow, restless pace, breathless eagerness, unbreakfasted morning, merry hours, a disapproving finger, Isabel shrugged an indifferent shoulder.

As may be seen, it is the force contributed to the attribute by its position, and not by its meaning, that hallows it into an epithet. The main feature of the epithet that of emotional assessment is greatly diminished in this model; but it never quite vanishes. The meaning of the logical attributes in such combinations acquires a definite emotional colouring.

Language epithets as part of the emotional word-stock of the language have a tendency to become obsolescent. That is the fate of many emotional elements in the language. They gradually lose their emotive charge and are replaced by new ones which, in their turn, will be replaced by neologisms. Such was the fate of the language epithet good-natured. In the works of Henry Fielding this epithet appears very often, as, for example, 'a good-natured hole', 'good-natured side'. The words vast and vastly were also used as epithets in the works of men-of-letters of the 18th century, as in 'vast rains', 'vastly amused'.

The problem of the epithet is too large and too significant to be fully dealt with in a short chapter. Indeed, it may be regarded as the crucial problem in emotive language and epithets, correspondingly, among the stylistic devices of the language.

It remains only to say that the epithet is a direct and straightforward way of showing the author's attitude towards the things described, whereas other stylistic devices, even image-bearing ones, will reveal the author's evaluation of the object only indirectly. That is probably why those authors who wish to show a seeming impartiality and objectivity in depicting their heroes and describing events use few epithets. Realistic authors use epithets much more sparingly, as statistical data have shown. Roughly speaking, Romanticism, on the other hand, may to some extent be characterized by its abundant use of epithets. In illustration we have taken at random a few lines from a stanza in Byron's "Guide Harold's Pilgrimage":

The horrid crags, by toppling convent, crowned, The cork-trees hoar that clothe the shaggy steep,

The mountain-moss by scorching skies imbrown'd, The sunken glen, whose sunless shrubs must weep, The orange tints that gild the greenest bough...


Oxymoron is a combination of two words (mostly an adjective and a noun or an adverb with an adjective) in which the meanings of the two clash, being opposite in sense, for example:

'low skyscraper', 'sweet sorrow', 'nice rascal', 'pleasantly ugly face', 'horribly beautiful', 'a deafening silence'.

If the primary meaning of the qualifying word changes or weakens, the stylistic effect of oxymoron is lost. This is the case with what were once oxymoronic combinations, for example, 'awfully nice', 'awfully glad', 'terribly sorry' and the like, where the words awfully and terribly have lost their primary logical meaning and are now used with emotive meaning only, as intensifiers. The essence of oxymoron consists in the capacity of the primary meaning of the adjective or adverb to resist for some time the overwhelming power of semantic change which words undergo in combination. The forcible combination of non-combinative words seems to develop what may be called a kind of centrifugal force which keeps them apart, in contrast to ordinary word-combinations where centripetal force is in action.

We have already pointed out that there are different ratios of emotive and logical relations in epithets. In some of them the logical meaning is hardly perceived, in others the two meanings co-exist. In oxymoron the logical meaning holds fast because there is no true word-combination, only the juxtaposition of two non-combinative words.

But still we may notice a peculiar change in the meaning of the qualifying word. It assumes a new life in oxymoron, definitely indicative of the assessing tendency in the writer's mind.

Let us take the following example from O. Henry's story "The Duel" in which one of the heroes thus describes his attitude towards New York. "I despise its very vastness and power. It has the poorest millionaires, the littlest great men, the haughtiest beggars, the plainest beauties, the lowest skyscrapers, the dolefulest pleasures of any town I ever saw."

Even the superlative degree of the adjectives fails to extinguish the primary meaning of the adjectives: poor, little, haughty, etc. But by some inner law of word-combinations they also show the attitude of the speaker, reinforced, of course, by the preceding sentence: "I despise its very vast-ness and power."

It will not come amiss to express this language phenomenon in terms of the theory of information, which states that though the general tendency of entropy is to enlarge, the encoding tendency in the language, which strives for an organized system of language symbols, reduces entropy. Perhaps, this is due to the organizing spirit of the language, i.e. the striving after a system (which in its very essence is an organized whole) that oxymoronic groups, if repeated frequently, lose their stylistic quality and gradually fall into the group of acknowledged word-combinations which consist of an intensifier and the concept intensified.

Oxymoron has one main structural model: adjective + noun. It is in this structural model that the resistance of the two component parts to fusion into one unit manifests itself most strongly. In the a d-v e r b + adjective model the change of meaning in the first element, the adverb, is more rapid, resistance to the unifying process not being so strong.

Sometimes the tendency to use oxymoron is the mark of certain literary trends and tastes. There are poets in search of new shades of meaning in existing words, who make a point of joining together words of contradictory meaning. "Two ordinary words may become almost new," writes V. V. Vinogradov, "if they are joined for the first time or used in an unexpected context." *

Thus, 'peopled desert', 'populous solitude', 'proud humility' are oxymoronic.

Sometimes, however, the tendency to combine the uncombinative is revealed in structurally different forms, not in adjective-noun models. Gorki criticizes his own sentence: "I suffered then from the fanaticism of knowledge," and called it "a blunder". He points out that the acquiring of knowledge is not blind as fanaticism is. The syntactic relations here are not oxymoronic. But combinations of this kind can be likened to oxymoron. The same can be said of the following lines from Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"

"Fair Greece! sad relic of departed Worth! Immortal, though no more, though fallen, great!"

' Oxymoronic relations in the italicized part can scarcely be felt, but still the contrary signification is clearly perceived. Such structures may be looked upon as intermediate between oxymoron and antithesis (see p. 222).

Date: 2014-12-29; view: 8891

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