Trump’s Use of the Homeric Epithet

François Gérard, "Blind Homer"

François Gérard, “Blind Homer”


Whenever Homer shows up in a New York Times headline, I’ve got to post on it. The piece was on Donald Trump’s use of the Homeric epithet:

Donald Trump’s repertoire of insulting nicknames for his opponents keeps expanding.

First came “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.” Then Mr. Trump added “Crooked Hillary” to the mix. Now he’s hit upon “Crazy Bernie Sanders” and “Goofy Elizabeth Warren.” Mr. Trump is so enamored of the latter invention that he used it in eight tweets last Wednesday alone.

 Reporter Anna North talked to a classicist to understand the rhetorical device:

Every character in the Iliad and the Odyssey has an epithet, or “a distinctive adjective that sums up that character,” explained Bruce Louden, a professor of languages and linguistics at the University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in Homer’s epics. Odysseus is “much-devising” or “much-enduring”; Achilles is “swift-footed”; Athena is “gray-eyed.”

Since the epics were long and typically performed orally, Professor Louden said, the epithets helped to remind listeners of the characters’ key traits. “Crooked,” “crazy” and “goofy” might serve a similar function. “They’re instant handles; they’re clearly designed for repetition,” he said.

And then there are the ways that Trump is no Homer:

One difference between Donald Trump and Homer (well, one of many) is that Homeric epithets are almost always positive. Mr. Trump is “not observing any of the traditional rules of decorum in which epithets would normally be passed around.” Besides, “Homeric epithets are accurate. Trump’s are not necessarily so,” Professor Louden added.

Literature’s aim, after all, is truth. And then there’s politics.

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