The “Guide to Literary Terms” describes epithet as “an adjective which expresses a quality or attribute considered characteristic of a person or thing.” An epithet can be a descriptive title as in epithets like, “Frederick the Great”. An epithet can also be used as a substitute for the name of a person as in “The Little Turk”. Epithets are closely related to euphemisms and kenning. An epithet is may be used in the negative sense i.e. when a word is used to describe something bad about someone. In modern usage epithet may refer to a derogatory or offensive phrase as used in racial epithets which involve specific race, culture or religion.
Epithets are commonly used for famous historical leaders as in Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionhearted, Alexander the Great and so on. Similarly religious leaders are identified with epithets such as “Father, Reverend, His Holiness” among other such titles. The epithet “Ruler of Many” is commonly used to describe Hades. Odysseus is often described with the epithet “crafty” attached to his name while the name Aeneas has the epithet “pious”. The Odyssey” by Homer is known for the use of epithets such as “gray-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered Dawn”. In Linguistics, Epithet is used as a metaphor or a reduced apposition. An epithet characterizes a person and may be used in place of his name as in case of the epithet-“king of thunder” which is a phrase used to represent “Zeus”.
Don’t confuse the word epithet with epitaph. The word epithet has its origin in the Greek word epitheton which means “placed upon or attributed”. It is a descriptive word used to characterize a person or thing to which it is attributed as in the phrase “the snot-green sea” used by James Joyce. An epitaph is derived from the Greek “epitaphos” which means “on tomb” and refers to the inscription on the gravestone or tomb.
Epithet is confined to a specific meaning in Biology. Typically, a biological epithet refers to the particular species of an organism, placed after the genus and codifying it specifically so that it becomes clear that the specific organism is being referred to. This form of an epithet is used only with formal names of fungi, bacteria and plants and does not apply to formal names given to animals. In the example, cannabis sativa, the term sativa refers to a specific epithet. In “Sequoia sempervirens”, the epithet "sempervirens"refers specifically to the coast redwood trees. Precise biological epithets are useful in clarifying biological nomenclature so that it is used uniformly by everyone with out any confusion.
Epithets are specific attributes characterizing a person or object and as such should be used correctly. In contemporary usage, using the proper epithets has become a vital component of etiquette training. It would be improper to forget addressing the Royalty with epithets such as “Your Royal Highness” or “Your Highness”. Similarly with higher educational qualifications such as a PhD would prefer to be addressed with the epithet-“Doctor”.