Term for journalistic epithets/sobriquets?
November 27, 2016 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Some journalistic articles tend to use a parade of little nicknames/titles/epithets for their subjects in lieu of repeating their names—e.g. “the actress,” “the Office star,” “the ‘Fancy’ rapper,” “the mom-to-be,” “the Portland native," “the bicycle enthusiast.” Seen super transparently in People-level articles, but I think also a feature of journalism more widely. Is there a term for these? Google has shown me nothing.
posted by little onion to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Grammatically, it's called an appositive. If you want this former newspaper, magazine and TV station editor's * opinion, it's a crutch used by people who are either afraid of pronouns or trying to hit a word count, or both.

* Just a longer way of saying "my"
posted by emelenjr at 1:48 PM on November 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

Henry Fowler uses the term elegant variation for this: "the unnecessary, and sometimes misleading, use of synonyms to denote a single thing, driven by an imbalance in compositional tone." Some good (bad?) examples in the Wikipedia article.
posted by zadcat at 1:49 PM on November 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Elegant variation.
posted by John Cohen at 1:59 PM on November 27, 2016

Thank you, it seems like elegant variation is what I’m talking about—but is there no term for the titles themselves? I want to use “epithet,” because they remind me of Homeric epithets, but it sounds pejorative. This kind of variation for a subject’s name feels like the rule of certain journalistic styles, which is why I wonder if there’s a word for it.

(I agree with Fowler's/Garner's/emelnjr's assessment that this is often an unattractive crutch.)
posted by little onion at 2:32 PM on November 27, 2016

Studying literature, we did indeed call these "epithets," though I am delighted to learn the term elegant variation. I don't know if there's a different term in journalism.
posted by Orlop at 2:38 PM on November 27, 2016

Both feel OK but epithet seems to apply more if the tone is negative ("short-fingered vulgarian"); "elegant variation" feels more appropriate when it's a positive spin ("beloved First Lady"). But this is my own personal take and has no basis in fact.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:58 PM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're looking to describe exactly what's going on here I think the best solution is to attach some word that evokes the specific entertainment-writer usage to the word "epithet." The Journalistic Epithet, the Substitutionary Epithet, the People's Epithet, the Junket Epithet, etc.

Coin your own term for this, write the definitive righteous thinkpiece against it, and get yourself described in an article as "the epithet-hating MeFite who decried the practice in a recent piece."
posted by Polycarp at 3:29 PM on November 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

My favourite of these epithets - colourful racing identity.
posted by unliteral at 4:07 PM on November 27, 2016

I love the term elegant variation, which may be even more accurate than what I suggested.
posted by emelenjr at 5:37 PM on November 27, 2016

The Guardian has Povs after infamously calling carrots the "popular orange vegetables".
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:11 PM on November 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yeah, 'povs' is what I call them when I'm running my figurative blue pencil through articles.

The guy who sub-edits LR is ex-guardian though, and a chunk of our style guide is lifted from theirs, so that's where we got it from.
posted by garius at 1:18 AM on November 28, 2016

The wikipedia article also mentions "gratuitous synonyms"--which I like simply because it is very clear exactly what the term "gratuitous synonyms" means.

"Obtrusive variation" is mentioned here--I like it because, again, it may communicate the meaning a bit more instantly than "elegant variation."

It strikes me that--if the point made in the wikipedia Elegant Variation article is true, that "elegant" implies a veneer of artificiality--in more modern language "elegant variation" might translate more precisely to something like "contrived variation," which does capture the point of what makes these terms grating to the reader.

Other terms that come to mind are "stock epithet," "conventional epithet," or "standard epithet"--though those terms only cover the subset of the things that actually are stock or conventional. For example, "stock epithet" wouldn't cover "furry, paddle-tailed mammal" because that most definitely is not a commonly used epithet for "beaver" . . .
posted by flug at 11:13 AM on November 28, 2016

Oh Jesus. I had the same question in a thread on the blue from June of last year that I only just remembered on reading your question. And now it's coming back to me like the end of a bad movie, where clips are replayed to show how the answer to the riddle was right there all along.

I wrote,

I forget what the name of this journalistic device is, where the writer begins a sentence with a concise introduction of a subject ("Wikileaks founder Julian Assange..." or "Socialite Paris Hilton..."). There's a bit of an art to it, especially if someone has gained notoriety in more than one field: is it "Microsoft founder Bill Gates" or "Philanthropist Bill Gates"?
Coverage of Donald Trump inspires the absolute apex of this form. Behold, the list of Donald Trump invective!

I've re-read this thing several times over the years and I never fail to laugh at the brutal insight in Jim Newell's introduction, "Gelatinous cartoon slumlord Donald Trump..." from Gawker.

A very close second is Gail Collins' diss: "Financially embattled thousandaire Donald Trump..."
Slighting Donald Trump is a proud tradition in the ranks of ink-stained wretches, and I genuinely look forward to this election cycle's bumper crop of thrown shade.

I think he announced he was running in June of 2015, maybe a week before I posted that. It all seemed so funny then; we were so young.

posted by andromache at 4:55 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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