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"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?

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    Please include what research you've done in your post. You obviously have put some work into this, as you vaguely mention "several sources", so let's see it! – Laurel Feb 20 '18 at 4:01
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    Look at the definition of epithet in Merriam Webster. Now look at the definition of moniker in Merriam Webster. Ditto sobriquet in M-W. Put these definitions in your Q, and explain just what puzzles you, and you could have a good question. For example, is sobriquet just a more sophisticated word for moniker? – ab2 Feb 20 '18 at 4:21
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    I suspect it's in the manner they are given, but don't have enough to form an answer. Here's a stab at a rule of thumb anyway: epithets are the most easily spat of the three, sobriquets are endearingly bestowed and monikers are more neutrally or even cheekily coined. – Lawrence Feb 20 '18 at 13:32
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    @RobbieGoodwin - FYI, I've flagged your comment. It's fine to encourage the OP to do some background work. It's fine to explain what's needed to write a well-posed question. But let's do it respectfully. – aparente001 May 6 '18 at 20:35
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    @RobbieGoodwin It's evident from the dictionary definitions that have been provided that they are similar. I don't see any reason to be dismissive of the question. – Jason Bassford May 6 '18 at 21:20
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+250

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.

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    Man, if you had given this answer back when I had put my bounty for this, I would've given it to you. This is the most well-done answer this question has received. Fun fact: Abraham Lincoln is also called "Honest Abe", an example of an epithet that incorporates an ordinary nickname derived as a diminutive of his given name. – MarqFJA87 Oct 24 '18 at 15:09
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    @MarqFJA87 Sometimes it's worth raising a question on Meta to get additional attention to a question, if the bounty isn't drawing the kind of answers you'd like. – Dan Bron Oct 24 '18 at 17:59
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I am basing my answer on the Oxford Dictionary.

The differences between the three words are as follows:

Epithet— an epithet is “an adjective or phrase expressing a quality or attribute regarded as characteristic of the person or thing mentioned.” In other words, an epithet is any descriptive word expressing a quality about something. In Oxford’s example, “dirty” is an epithet:

“Old men are often unfairly awarded the epithet ‘dirty.’ ”

You would not replace “epithet” in that sentence with “sobriquet” or “moniker.” Here’s why:

Sobriquetsobriquet is merely another word for “nickname,” and a nickname is “a familiar or humorous name given to a person or thing instead of or as well as the real name. “Dirty” is not a nickname but a descriptive adjective expressing an attribute—an epithet. Whereas an epithet specifically describes a quality or attribute about the one to whom the epithet is attributed to, a sobriquet is simply a name other than a particular person’s proper name. For example, “Bobby” can be considered a sobriquet for one whose proper name is Robert.

Monikermoniker is merely an informal word for “name”; that is, something or someone’s proper form of address. Thus, you would use “moniker” like this:

“Mark Twain’s real moniker is Samuel Langhorne Clemens.”

Hope I’ve explained the negligible difference between the three words. Remember, these definitions are Oxford’s.

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Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary notes that:

Sometimes we call a person by a name that is not his or her given name. Related words in this context are epithet, moniker, and sobriquet, but the most commonly used word for another name for a person is nickname. These words are indeed very close in meaning, but we can see differences in usage and context.

The broadest and most neutral word of this group is nickname.

According to The Grammarist the main difference between epithet and sobriquet is that the former, unlike the latter, often carries a negative connotation:

Epithet is a word or phrase that describes an attribute that characterizes a particular person. Usually, an epithet is disparaging, but not always. An epithet may also be a title that describes an attribute of a person or thing, such as Edward the Confessor and Richard the Lionheart. Epithet is derived from the Greek word epitheton, which means attributed.

The words epithet and sobriquet are somewhat interchangeable but epithets tend to be negative or formal and sobriquets tend to be positive and informal.

Though epithet was originally a neutral term, the term has been used with a negative connotation at least from the 19th century as noted by Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: English Dictionary

The following site offers an interesting analysis on the meaning and usage of sobriquet and explains the difference from its close synonym, nickname:

Typically a sobriquet is a name given to person for his deeds, though it can sometimes be assumed by the individual himself. Sobriquets are quite pervasive in the world of sports and sometimes you will notice sports journalists in a hurry to unleash a sobriquet and they secretly dream of their concoction sticking in the minds of the masses.

Good sobriquets however are probably created after some data is available about the specialness of the character. Tagore was not given the sobriquet of “Gurdev” overnight , Mohandas karamchand Gandhi did not become the “Mahatma” in southafrica, neither did the charisma of ” Netajee” .Sobriquets stick because they capture the essence of the person and such as go on to sometimes overshadow the name itself.

A sobriquet carries much more power than a nickname , since sobriquet more often than not refers to the acceptance of it amongst the masses rather than just friends, families and colleagues. So Michael jackson perhaps was a child was called mitch but to the people all over the world he was ” King of Pop”.

(vishalkhare.wordpress.com)

Moniker appears to be the more “neutral” of the three terms:

Moniker is usually used in an informal or casual context, and can refer to a name or nickname of a person, place, or thing: Because of their early shift, they were given the moniker "Dawn Patrol." His classmates gave him the moniker "Gullible Gus." As the "couture" moniker indicates, this store sells designer clothes.

As a side note on usage, M-W suggests that:

Please notice that the word epithet also has another meaning, which is much more common in English today. In this sense, it means "an offensive word or name that is used as a way of abusing or insulting someone."

Both sobriquet and epithet are formal and rare today. I would recommend that you use the word nickname, unless the context is informal or slightly humorous, where moniker is a good choice.

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    Nice! +1 especially for this quote A sobriquet carries much more power than a nickname , since sobriquet more often than not refers to the acceptance of it amongst the masses rather than just friends, families and colleagues. So Michael jackson perhaps was a child was called mitch but to the people all over the world he was ” King of Pop”. – Dan Bron Oct 24 '18 at 20:22
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    Now I'm torn between this and my current accepted answer for this Q. What to do... – MarqFJA87 Oct 25 '18 at 17:41
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+50

The differences are partly about worth, as perceived by the speaker.

An epithet, as @Lawrence noted, is critical, negative, probably an adjective, and may well be part of an insult or curse.

The other two are nearly synonyms, though sobriquet has aspects of being a title while moniker is used in the the sense of 'also known as'.

So "pumpkin in chief" would be a sobriquet, while "David Dennison" is a moniker.

(In the interests of political correctness, I've left epithet as exercises for the students.)

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    I seem to recall that when we say "Alfred the Great", that last part "The Great" is an epithet. So it need not be negative. Superman bears the epithet "The Man of Steel". – GEdgar May 10 '18 at 17:24
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    @gedgar I've never heard or read "epithet" in a neutral or positive sense. I suppose a super-villian might might sneer "Man of Steel", making it an epithet in context, but most would consider it a term of admiration. – Taryn May 10 '18 at 20:32
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    I think you just wrong if you say "epithet" is used only negatively. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epithet – GEdgar May 10 '18 at 21:14
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    From your link: "In contemporary use, epithet often refers to an abusive, defamatory, or derogatory phrase, such as a racial[2] or animal epithet.[3] This use as a euphemism is criticized by Martin Manser and other proponents of linguistic prescription.[4]" So, I'll accept your point, but I'm apparently too young to remember 'nice' epithets, and I'm not big on prescription ;) – Taryn May 11 '18 at 5:20
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    You provided no sources whatsoever. What are you basing your answer on? – user320354 Oct 23 '18 at 14:13
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There is not a huge difference between the three words "Epithet, sobriquet, and moniker". They are very similar but, a little different from each other.

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    Hi Annie, there are already good answers to this question, so to be worthwhile, your answer needs to add something extra. The bounty on this question states "Canonical, detailed, cited & substantiated answer required. No guesses, no suggestions, no thought streams, no short blurbs. The answer must discuss, compare, and contrast all three terms (not just one or two) with citations to credible, ideally widely-recognized, authorities on the matter." You can edit your post to add this detail; for further guidance, see How to Answer. :-) – Chappo Oct 28 '18 at 0:12
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    You're the same user who asked if the word "whom" existed... Research before posting an answer (or a question) if you're not sure. No one was born learned, no one became an "expert" overnight, every user, sooner or later had to pick up a dictionary to look up a word or its synonyms. You can improve this answer vastly when you have identified and said what is "a little different" between the three terms. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '18 at 6:26

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