Learn English – Epithet, sobriquet, and moniker: What’s the difference

meaningnounssynonyms

"Epithet", "sobriquet", "moniker"… All three are related words, the relation being that each is a form of nickname. But all my efforts at figuring out what distinctions exist between them have been futile; several sources treat them as essentially synonyms, while others claim there are differences but clash with each other on what those differences are (and that's assuming that a given source actually has a concrete idea of what said differences ought to be).

Take Merriam-Webster, for example:

  • epithet: a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring
    in place of the name of a person or thing.
  • sobriquet: a descriptive name or epithet; nickname.
  • moniker: name, nickname.

Now let's look at Wiktionary:

  • epithet: A term used to characterize a person or thing; a term used
    as a descriptive substitute for the name or title of a person.
  • sobriquet: A familiar name for a person (typically a shortened
    version of a person’s given name).
  • moniker: A personal name or nickname; an informal label, often
    drawing attention to a particular attribute.

And finally, consider the Collins Dictionary:

  • epithet: an adjective or short phrase which is used as a way of
    criticizing or praising someone; a descriptive word or phrase added
    to or substituted for a person's name; an adjective, noun, or phrase,
    often specif. a disparaging one, used to characterize some person or
    thing; a descriptive name or title (Ex.: Philip the Fair; America the
    Beautiful).
  • sobriquet: a humorous name that people give someone or something; a
    humorous epithet, assumed name, or nickname; a nickname, an assumed
    name;
  • moniker: a person or thing's name, especially when it was changed; a
    person's name or nickname.

Honestly speaking, none of these definitions seem to be that distinct from one another, and some even clash with how I've seen the words get used; Collins, for example, claims that an epithet is often disparaging, but most "epithets" that I've seen called as such are nothing of the kind.

Also, take note that although the actual definitions don't say anything about this, what is said about epithet "accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing" apparently also applies to sobriquet; the Wikipedia article certainly says as much, and even has a long list of examples that illustrate this.

So here I am, asking for assistance. Are there any appreciable differences in the meanings between these three words? If so, what are they?

Best Answer

Sources

The dictionaries I'm using as sources are:

  • Merriam-Webster
  • American Heritage
  • Collins
  • Cambridge
  • Macmillan
  • Oxford Living Dictionaries
  • Random House Unabridged

"All dictionaries" = "All six above dictionaries I checked"

Moniker

This task is harder than I had anticipated. I'll start with the easy stuff.

The word moniker (also spelt monicker) is very simple, because in all dictionaries it's defined as nothing more interesting than a name, nickname or alias. Wikipedia doesn't have an article entry for moniker, it's simply merged with nickname. Sobriquet and epithet do have their own articles in Wikipedia.

Three dictionaries mark the word as "slang", two as "humorous" and one as "informal". So it's established, I believe, that moniker is just a nickname.

Sobriquet

As to the definitions of sobriquet, 4 say that a sobriquet is a nickname, plain and simple. However there are two that say that a "sobriquet" can be an "epithet".

sobriquet
a descriptive name or epithet : nickname
Merriam-Webster

(Literary & Literary Critical Terms) a humorous epithet, assumed name, or nickname
Collins

So a sobriquet can be an epithet?

Nickname

Here's another problem, under the Wikipedia article for nickname it lists names that are found also in the sobriquet article. For example:

Nicknames:

Nicknames may be derived from or related to what the person is well known for.
- The Duke for John Wayne
- The Angel of Death for Josef Mengele

These two so-called nicknames also appear in in the sobriquet article.

So I'm finding things very confusing already without even getting on to the topic of epithet.

Epithet

I'm surprised that a common understanding of epithet by some is that it's primarily an insult.

It's true that every dictionary, without exception, lists the offensive or insult meaning of epithet, but it's always in second or third position, meaning the dictionaries feel (yes, they have feelings) that the primary meaning is in describing names like:

Epithet

  • Alfred the Great
  • Suleiman the Magnificent
  • Władysław I the Elbow-high
  • Richard the Lionheart
  • Charles the Fat
  • Charles the Bald
  • Alexander the Great
  • Constantine the Great
  • Ivan the Terrible
  • Vlad the Impaler

William Safire writes about the derogatory meaning of epithet in 2008:

In the past century, [epithet] blossomed as 'a word of abuse,' today gleefully seized upon to describe political smears. Epithet-rhetoric

Though if I had to guess I'd say it's more common in the phrase racial epithet, I'm not sure.

Contrast, comparison, and complications

Anyway, so at least with epithet there seems to be a distinguishing feature. Whereas the list of sobriquets went something like:

  • "Iron Lady" (Thatcher)
  • "Bloody Mary" (Mary I)
  • "The Donald" (US President Trump)
  • "Dr Death" (That assisted suicide doctor, Kevorkian)

The epithets go something like:

  • Joe the Big-Nosed
  • Harold the Highfalutin

etc.

But there's a couple of other problems.

If I look up Queen Mary I on Encyclopaedia Britannica it starts:

Mary I, also called Mary Tudor, byname Bloody Mary...
Article link

So Bloody Mary is her byname here. And if you look at the first sentence in the Wikipedia epithet article, it starts off:

An epithet is a byname, or a descriptive term (word or phrase), accompanying or occurring in place of a name and having entered common usage.
Epithet Wikipedia article

So is Bloody Mary an epithet, epitaph, nickname, sobriquet, tourniquet or what?

Also notice what it says in that sentence, "a descriptive term (word or phrase), accompanying or occurring in place of...". Accompanying would be Richard the Lionheart. In place of would be The Lionheart. If this is true, then Iron Lady and Bloody Mary can also be epithets.

This sentence about the description either accompanying or replacing the name recurs in the dictionary definitions of epithet:

epithet
1a : a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing
Merriam-Webster

epithet
a descriptive word or phrase added to or substituted for a person's name:
"Lackland" is an epithet for King John.
Collins

Oh, and this also:

epithet (n.)
1a. A term used to characterize a person or thing, such as rosy-fingered in rosy-fingered dawn or the Great in Catherine the Great.
b. A term used as a descriptive substitute for the name or title of a person, such as The Great Emancipator for Abraham Lincoln.
American Heritage

So it's possibly both. Another thing I'm confused about is the fact that "Mahatma Gandhi", whose name is actually Mohandas Gandhi, is listed in the sobriquet article.

By clicking into the "Mahatma" article you see that "Mahatma" is called an epithet. Encyclopaedia Britannica calls the name "Mahatma Gandhi" a byname. Merriam-Webster and Oxford Living Dictionaries define "byname" as a nickname or secondary name.

Conclusions and confusions

All these definitions have left me quite confused. Given the above information I don't think I can even say what an epithet is most of the times in contrast with a sobriquet. And I have a feeling that a nickname and by extension moniker is a hypernym of at least sobriquets.

As far as a distinction between a moniker (nickname) and the other two is concerned, I believe it's safe to assume that a nickname of Ed for Edward, Jim for James, Sue for Susan, or Liz or Elizabeth would only be considered monikers/nicknames, because the shortened names don't describe anything, which is a requirement for both sobriquet and epithet.

However if you had a huge or strong friend and nicknamed him (the) Giant or (the) Ox, I believe this would be a nickname, and a sobriquet, and according to one interpretation of it, even an epithet. Even if you had a friend who always had good luck and nicknamed them Lucky, I think the same applies. And James the Giant or Helen the Lucky would be epithets by any of the relevant meanings you chose, I'm pretty sure.