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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a poetic attribute, a type of trope. Epithets are usually adjectives (sladostnyi napev, “sweet melody”); in Russian literary criticism, however, the category is extended to include adverbs (goriacho liubit’, “to love hotly”), nouns (vesel’ia shum, “noise of mirth”) numerals (pervyi drug, “first [best] friend”), and verbs (zhelanie zabyt’sia, “desire to forget”). Unlike common attributes, which distinguish some object from many others (tikhii zvon, “faint pealing”), an epithet may single out one special quality of the object (gordyi kon’, “proud steed”) or function as a metaphor, investing the object with the properties of another object (zhivoi sled, “living trace”).

The epithet evolved in oral poetry in various ways: as a generalization of a standard attribute typifying an object (rusaia kosa, “light brown braid”; belaia bereza, “white birch”), as a means of fixing a historical relation (sedelyshko cherkasskoe, “Circassian saddle”; the “Arabian steed” of French medieval poetry), and as an idealization (laskovyi kniaz’ Vladimir, “gentle Prince Vladimir”). The development of a personal poetic diction expanded the system of stock epithets used in folk poetry. The attributes of natural phenomena were applied to persons (iasnoe solntse, “bright sun” for iasnyi vzgliad, “bright visage”), and syn-esthetic epithets were created by combining different categories of sensation (kholodnyi tsvet, “cold color”; iasnyi zvuk, “clear sound”). The desire to emphasize an impression led to repetition (ukrasno ukrashennaia zemlia Russkaia, “beauteously beautiful Russian land”) or the fusion of different roots (Homer’s “swift-footed Achilles”; shirokoshumnye dubrovy, “wide-rustling oak groves”).

Professional literature eventually abandoned the stock epithets of folk poetry, which in extreme cases stripped words of their fundamental semantics (Naostri moiu ostruiu sabliu!, “Sharpen my sharp saber!”), to develop personal, striking, and unique epithets (A. S. Pushkin’s dam obdumannyi nariad, “ladies’ calculated attire”). Epithets may thus reflect an author’s style, historical period, and literary school (sladkoglasnyi pevets, “sweet-voiced singer,” and khladnyi prakh, “cold ashes,” are typical of sentimentalism; zheltaia zaria, “yellow dawn,” and snezhnoe vino, “snowy wine,” figure as elements in A. Blok’s poetic system).


Veselovskii, A. N. Istoricheskaia poetika. Leningrad, 1940. Pages 73–93.
Zhirmunskii, V. M. “K voprosu ob epitete.” In his collection Teoriia lit-ry, poetika, stilistika: Izbr. trudy. Leningrad, 1977.
Tomashevskii, B. V. Stilistika i stikhoslozhenie. Leningrad, 1959. Pages 200–08.
Ozerov, L. “Oda epitetu.” Voprosy literatury, 1972, no. 4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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