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What is the Difference Between Transferred Epithet & Personification?

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Can a marriage be unhappy, or are the people in it unhappy? This lesson looks at a little-known type of metaphoric language, transferred epithet, and its often-confused partner personification.

Metaphoric Language

Nina is confused. She wrote a story for school and in it, a husband and wife were fighting a lot. She referred to their relationship as an 'unhappy marriage.' She believes this is personification because a marriage can't be unhappy. But her friend Sarah says it's something called a 'transferred epithet.' Who's right?

Nina and Sarah are arguing about metaphoric language, which is when descriptions of things and people aren't literal. When someone talks about the 'icy hands of winter,' they don't mean that the winter literally has hands, so it's metaphoric language.

The icy hands of winter, so to speak
wintery street

To help Nina and Sarah resolve their argument, let's look closer at both transferred epithet and personification.

Personification

Nina says that when she talks about an unhappy marriage, she's using personification, which involves giving human characteristics to non-human beings or objects in literature.

Before we get into why Nina thinks that she's using personification, let's look at some examples. Personification is often used in poetry. For example, Emily Dickinson once wrote, 'shadows tremble so.' This is an example of personification because shadows don't literally tremble, but people do.

In his play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote, 'The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night'. This offers two examples of personification in one line: the morning smiling and the night frowning. Both smiling and frowning are human actions. Morning and night can't literally smile or frown, but Shakespeare makes them do those things as part of his metaphor.

William Shakespeare, master of the metaphor
Shakespeare

So is Nina's phrase 'unhappy marriage' personification? It's true that a marriage is a thing, not a person. Because of that, the marriage can't be unhappy. So it seems like it might be personification. But before we declare Nina is right, let's look at transferred epithets to see if her friend Sarah might be right.

Transferred Epithet

Sarah tells Nina that her use of the term 'unhappy marriage' is a transferred epithet because, even though the marriage itself isn't unhappy, the people in the marriage are. But that leaves Nina wondering what, exactly, a transferred epithet is.

An epithet is a word that describes something else. Usually, this is an adjective describing a noun. In a simple phrase like 'the red dress,' the epithet is 'red.' It's describing the dress.

A transferred epithet is when an epithet is transferred from the thing it actually describes to something else in the sentence. Again, this is almost always an adjective being transferred from one noun to another.

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