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An epithet is a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing.


  • "The blonde"
  • "The brunet"
  • "The younger man"
  • "The smaller man"
  • "the fortified teenager"
  • "the grad student"
  • "the green-eyed woman"
  • "the arrogant, excitable scientist"
  • "the younger Immortal"
  • "the beefier detective"
  • "the cynical computer tech"
  • "the long-haired grad student"

In Fanworks

From a 2000 fan essay about epithets:

In "King of Thieves" Hercules is asking for Iolaus in a tavern and a guy with a wicked black eye and a head injury says "I just met your little friend -- he gave me this."

"Well if you called him 'little' you're lucky that's all he gave you," Hercules replies unsympathetically.

One thing in Hercules fanfiction that will cause me to hit the back button faster than almost anything else is Hercules calling Iolaus "little buddy. [1]

In other words, descriptions used instead of characters' names. They may be used in situations where a character does not know another's name, either because they have just met or because of a plot device like amnesia. Terms that are titles such as "The Prince of Mirkwood", are not considered epithets, as such. However, if repeated frequently enough, these can have an epithet-like effect on readers.

Many fanfic readers dislike epithets in general, and when they are used too often, they lead to an unintentionally humorous effect. Examples of epithets used in fanfic are phrases like "the second youngest of the band," "the Starfleet captain," and "the willowy blond". A particularly memorable example of excessive use was "the blood-stained redhead" to describe Scully in The X-Files after a violent event.

Eye and hair colour-based epithets — the "blond vampire" Spike (Buffyverse), the "green-eyed Seeker" (Harry Potter) — can lead to hilarious and lusty debate over the canonical eye and/or hair colour of the characters described, such over whether "Buffy has blue eyes."

Epithets may be more common in slash out of a desire to avoid pronoun confusion by describing the character rather than just saying "he" or repeating the characters' names constantly. But they can be particularly confusing when they are not distinctive. Phrases like "the taller man" or "the slightly younger man" are notoriously often used in situations such as Starsky and Hutch, and Viggo/Sean Bean, where there's little difference in size or age between the characters.

In Wiseguy fandom, one author wrote a long series of zines (The Terranova Situation) where she noted that she had deliberately changed the eye color of one of the characters so that she could use an eye-color epithet to refer to the characters (the green-eyed man, the blue-eyed man, the hazel-eyed man, etc.) without confusing the readers.

Abuse of epithets can also lead to confusion when, for example, there is a scene with two characters, yet multiple epithets are used for each person (such as "pale" and "student"), making it seem as if there are more people involved.

In addition to practical issues, using an epithet rather than a name often reduces a character's agency and individuality. ... names have power. Taking away a person's name can be used as a tactic specifically intended to dehumanize them and make them vulnerable...[2]

There may be more epithets in fic in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s due to a major zine publisher/agent's decision to edit fanworks without permission, adding the dreaded epithets. See: Agent With Style: Controversy: Quality of Editing, Revisions Without Permission, and Publishing Without Permission.

Acceptance and Use of Epithets

For some fandoms, epithets are sanctioned by original source material. Hercules in particular, follows Greek mythic tradition, where "the ox-eyed lady" is a synonym for Hera, so Iolaus is often called the Golden Hunter.

In LOTR RPS, there is evidence that the cast occasionally called each other by their character's race, hence use of "Hobbit", "Elf" and "dirty Man" is not too jarring, unless repeated often.

In Starsky and Hutch, the taller/smaller/blond man was used much more extensively in the early to mid 1990s, and not so much anymore.

Agent With Style: Fans' Complaints About Unauthorized Editing and Epithets


...I replied to one of MF's solicitation letters and sent her a story, figuring to be a mensch; luckily, she sent me the story back to review before printing. I was skimming it and I was--well, at first confused, and then angry. The anthropologist? The smaller man? She'd taken out my names and my nice clear verbs (is and says) and put in epithets and "exciting!" verbs like "yowls"--okay, not yowls... [3]


it boils down to the lady who runs AWS being a piss-poor editor (in love with epithets), refusing to listen to the authors when it comes to formatting/editing, financing her lifestyle by overpricing the zines and publishing some people's work without their permission. It was a bit more complex than that (and -- Mysti Frank, I think her name is -- found the discussion and turned it into a full-blown argument) but those were the basic accusations, and there were too many well known names weighing in on it for me to discount it. While I've never published with her, as a reader, I don't care for the zines either. Nearly every zine I bought from that place was loaded with "the dark haired man" and "the Mountie/Cop/whatever"...[4]

Fan Comments

fellow fic writers, i PROMISE it is okay to use the characters' names more frequently than you think. I would much rather read the same name a few times in a paragraph, or even in the same sentence, than "the male" or "the smaller" or "the brunette." pls and thank

if you format it right, you don't have to use names or modifiers at all. but names are always preferable, or pronouns. when ppl use adjectives as a placeholder for a name it adds time where i have to interpret it and figure out what character you mean, and that ruins the flow[5]

Meta/Further Reading


  1. ^ The Less Than Legendary Journeys: They Don't Wear Leather Pants on Gilligan's Island, Archived version, by Randi DuMois (2000)
  2. ^ zillah. The Naming of Cats, posted on Dreamwidth August 26, 2010
  3. ^ "Missing the Zine Love". Archived from the original on 2016-07-11.
  4. ^ "Missing the Zine Love". Archived from the original on 2016-07-11.
  5. ^ Sep 30, 2019 by rachebones