A transferred epithet often involves shifting a modifier from the animate to the inanimate, as in the phrases "cheerful money," "sleepless night," and "suicidal sky."
Examples and Observations:
- “As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,’ it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy."
(P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, 1954)
- "We're coming close to those little creeks now, and we keep a discreet silence."
(Henry Hollenbaugh, Rio San Pedro. Alondra Press, 2007)
- "[Peggotty] rubs everything that can be rubbed, until it shines, like her own honest forehead, with perpetual friction."
(Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850)
- "The new man wrote a question at which I stared in wide-eyed amazement: WHO WAS BUCKEYE THE RABBIT?"
(Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1952)
- "As a poetic device, transferred epithet is a useful ornament, and it is often serviceable in ordinary prose as well. But the journalistic urge to compress, to shorten, to be breezy, which inevitably has its effect on other kinds of writing, occasionally produces some dubious uses of the device: 'A brief visitor to Paris'; 'Premier Castro spends incredible hours before the microphone'; 'Three out of five fires are caused by a careless cigarette or a careless match.' If a transferred epithet creates an immediate feeling of incongruity or ludicrousness, it is best avoided."
(Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Free Press, 1998)
- " . . . that city of almost incalculable wealth whose queerly appropriate fate it is to be erected upon a few spools of a substance whose value is computed in billions and which may be completely destroyed in that second's instant of a careless match between the moment of striking and the moment when the striker might have sprung and stamped it out."
(William Faulkner, "Golden Land," 1935)
- "All ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look, now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!"
(Edmund Hamilton Sears, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," 1849)
- "Carter had changed too, in a rather worrying way. His prose had got more and more muffled and meandering, increasingly clotted with strange, obsolete poeticisms. . . . He had been reading literary theory too, it seemed: as his style deteriorated his ability to score points increased.
"'I see you've got the phrase 'dizzy orbs' on the next page,' Benson remarked, looking up from his reading. . . .
"'Transferred epithet,' Carter said. 'Albert felt himself getting dizzy at the sight of them. It's called a transferred epithet.'"
(Barry Unsworth, Sugar and Rum. Hamish Hamilton, 1988)
- "You don't really criticize any author to whom you have never surrendered yourself. . . . Even just the bewildering minute counts; you have to give yourself up."
(T. S. Eliot, letter to Stephen Spender, 1935)
- "There will be the cough before the silence, then
Expectation; and the hush of portent
Must be welcomed by a diffident music
Lisping and dividing its renewals . . .."
(W.S. Merwin, "Dictum: for a Masque of Deluge." The Hudson Review, Spring 1951)
- "An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?"
(W.B. Yeats, "A Prayer for My Daughter." Poetry, Nov. 1919)