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English Stylistics Class 2013. Epithet – Oxymoron, Hyperbole – Understatement, Periphrasis – Euphemism



Epithet (Greek – “addition”) is a stylistic device emphasizing some quality of a person, thing, idea or phenomenon. Like metaphor, metonymy and simile epithets are also based on similarity between two objects, on nearness of the qualified objects and on their comparison. Epithets should not be confused with logical attributes, the latter having no expres­sive force but indicating those qualities of the objects that may be regarded as gener­ally recognized (for instance, round table, green meadows, lofty mountains and the like).

From the point of view of their compositional structure epithets may be divided into:
1) simple (adjectives, nouns, participles): e.g. He looked at them in animal panic.
2) compound: e.g. apple - faced man;
3) sentence and phrase epithets: e.g. It is his do - it - yourself attitude.
4) reversed epithets - composed of 2 nouns linked by an of phrase: e.g. “a shadow of a smile”;

5) transferred (figurative) – describing inanimate objects like living beings: e.g. “the smiling sun”;

6) Two-step epithets are so called because the process of qualifying passes two stages: the qualification of the object and the qualification of the qualification itself, as in “an unnaturally mild day”. Two-step epithets have a fixed structure of Adv+Adj model
Semantically according to I. Galperin.
1) associated with the noun following it, pointing to a feature which is essential to the objects they describe: dark forest; careful attention.
2) unassociated with the noun, epithets that add a feature which is unexpected and which strikes the reader: smiling sun, voiceless sounds.


Oxymoron (from the Greek word meaning “pointedly foolish”) is lexical stylistic device the syntactic and semantic structures of which come to clashes (e.g. “cold fire”, “brawling love”).

Structurally oxymoron can be:

-          Attributive, (adj + noun)

-          Verbal, (verb + adverb) e.g. “to shout mutely” or “to cry silently”.

Originality and specificity of oxymoron becomes especially evident in non-attributive structures which also (not infrequently) are used to express semantic contradiction as in “the street was damaged by improvements”, “silence was louder than thunder”.

Oxymorons rarely become trite, for their components, linked forcibly, repulse each other and oppose repeated use. There are few colloquial oxymorons, all of them show a high degree of the speaker’s emotional involvement in the situation, as in “awfully pretty”.



Hyperbole (Greek- "excess, exaggeration") is a lexical stylistic device in which emphasis is achieved through deliberate exaggeration. Hyperbole is aimed at exaggerating quantity or quality. For example:

A thousand pardons;

Scared to death;

Give the world to see him;

The man-mountain.


Understatement – the exaggeration of smallness. When the hyperbole is directed the opposite way, when the size, shape, dimensions, characteristic features of the object are not overrated, but intentionally underrated, we deal with understatement. English is well known for its preference for understatement in everyday speech. “I am rather annoyed” instead of “I’m infuriated’, “The wind is rather strong” instead of “There’s a gale blowing outside” are typical of British polite speech, but are less characteristic of American English.


Periphrasis (Greek – “speaking around”) - a device by which a longer phrase is used instead of a shorter and plainer one, it is used in literary descriptions for greater expressiveness: The little boy has been deprived of what can never be replaced (Dickens) (= deprived of his mother); An addition to the little party now made its appearance (= another person came in). The notion of king may be poetically represented as the protector of earls; the victor lord; the giver of lands; a battle may be called a play of swords; a saddle = a battle-seat; a soldier = a shield-bearer, God = Our Lord, Almighty, Goodness.

Periphrases are classified into:

-          Logical, i.e. synonymous phrases.

-          Figurative, in fact phrase-metonymies and phrase-metaphors; e.g. The punctual servant of all work (i.e. the sun)


Euphemism (Greek – “speaking well”) means substitution of words with mild connotation for rough, unpleasant, or otherwise unmentionable words. Euphemism is due to social, religious and cultural factors. Taboo is one of these factors. The word lavatory has produced many euphemisms – loo, powder room, washroom, re­stroom, retiring room, public station, comfort station, ladies', gentlemen's, water-closet (WC), public convenience. Pass away is a euphemism for die, agent for spy, dentures for false teeth.


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