What's in a Name?

Definition and Examples of Names in English

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Name is an informal term for a word or phrase that designates a person, place, or thing.

A noun that names any one of the same kind or class (for example, queen, hamburger, or city) is called a common name. A noun that names a particular member of a class (Elizabeth II, Big Mac, Chicago) is called a proper name. Proper names are usually written with initial capital letters.

Onomastics is the study of proper names, especially the names of people (anthroponyms) and places (toponyms).

Etymology: From the Greek, "name"

Pronunciation: NAM

Also Known As: proper name

Examples and Observations

  • Jack: I haven't met your boyfriend.
    Liz Lemon: His name's Floyd.
    Jack: That's unfortunate.
    (Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey in "Corporate Crush." 30 Rock, 2007)

The Sounds of Names

  • "It's interesting how some names sound good and some sound bad. Names with soft consonants such as [m], [n], and [l] tend to sound nicer than names with hard consonants such as [k] and [g]. Imagine we're approaching a planet, where two alien races live. One of the races is called the Lamonians. The other is called the Grataks. Which sounds like the friendlier race? Most people opt for the Lamonians, because the name sounds friendlier. Grataks sound nasty." (David Crystal, A Little Book of Language. Yale University Press, 2010)

English Place Names

  • "Who could resist the lure of the extraordinary names of England's villages? High Easter, New Delight, Kingston Bagpuize, Sleeping Green, Tiptoe, Nether Wallop, Nymphsfield, Christmas Common, Samlesbury Bottoms, Thyme Intrinseca, Huish Champflower, Buckland-tout-Saints, Wyre Piddle, Martin Husingtree, Norton-Juxta-Twycross and so on, a gazeteer of dreams." (Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People. Overlook, 2000)

American Names

  • "I have fallen in love with American names,
    The sharp names that never get fat,
    The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
    The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
    Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat. . . ."
    (Stephen Vincent Benét, "American Names," 1927)

Common Words and Proper Names

  • "There is no sharp dividing line between common words and proper names. They feed off each other. Many medieval surnames began as common nouns, especially those associated with occupations: Archer, Baker, Barber, Brewer, Butcher, Carpenter, Cook, Farmer, Fisher, Goldsmith, Mason, Miller, Parson, Shepherd, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Weaver Some are less obvious today. Trinder? A wheelmaker. Fletcher? An arrow-maker. Lorimer? A spur-maker. . . .
    "Everyday words can be turned into a place name as circumstances require. The exploration routes of the world are full of such names as Cape Catastrophe, Skull Creek, and Mount Pleasant, plus hopeful names like Concord, Fame, and Niceville. The same trend affects streets, parks, promenades, quaysides, markets, and all the other places where we live." (David Crystal, Words, Words, Words. Oxford University Press, 2006)

Name Magic

  • "The mythical view of language which everywhere precedes the philosophical view of it is always characterized by this indifference of word and thing. Here the essence of everything is contained in its name. Magical powers attach directly to the word. He who gains possession of the name and knows how to make use of it, has gained power over the object itself; he has made it his own with all its energies. All word magic and name magic is based on the assumption that the world of things and the world of names form a single undifferentiated chain of causality and hence a single reality." (Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Language. Yale University Press, 1953)

Naming Things in Britain

  • "People do like to name things. I don't mean just public transport objects, such as locomotives, ships, and planes, or the names given to commercial objects by their manufacturers. I mean personal, private names for everyday objects, such as fridges, lawnmowers, and wheelbarrows . . .. Back in the 1980s, in a programme for the English Now series I presented on Radio 4, I asked listeners to send in examples of objects they had named. I was expecting a few dozen letters. I got hundreds.
    "A man wrote to say his wheelbarrow was called Wilberforce. A woman said her hoover [vacuum cleaner] was known as J. Edgar. At least two garden sheds were called Tardis. There was in the kingdom a waste-disposal unit called Wally, a teapot called Herbie, an ashtray called Cedric, and a butter knife called Marlon. Maybe there still is. . . .
    "The principle is evidently that, if you have an object which is of particular functional or emotional significance to you, you give it a name. Often it's a name known only to members of your family. It's part of the 'house dialect' --or 'familect'--which every family has." (David Crystal, By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English. Overlook Press, 2008)

Repetition of First Names

  • "The effect was a little like that produced by people who in conversation constantly use the first name of the person they are speaking: you can go years without noticing this but once you do it is hard not to become distracted by it--hard, in fact, not to feel that it is specifically intended to drive you mad." (John Lanchester, Capital. W.W. Norton, 2012)

Name Taboos

  • "Taboos on using personal names are reported in a wide variety of cultures. The details vary from language to language, but it is common for people to be reluctant to reveal their own real names. In many small-scale societies names are not much used. Instead, people are often addressed or referred to by kin terms such as 'son' or 'father's sister.' In some societies people have two names, a 'real' name, which they keep secret, and an extra name or nickname which is disclosed to outsiders. In other societies people will turn to a third party to announce their name when someone asks, because there is a taboo on uttering one's own name (Frazer 1911b: 244-6)." (Barry J. Blake, Secret Language. Oxford University Press, 2010)

George Carlin on the Lighter Side of Names

  • "Why don't these guys named Allen, Allyn, and Alan get together and decide how . . . to spell their name? I'm tired of guessing. The same with Sean, Shaun, and Shawn. Stop with all these cute attempts to be different. If you wanna be different, call yourself Margaret Mary." (George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? Hyperion, 2004)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What's in a Name?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/name-nouns-term-1691414. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What's in a Name? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/name-nouns-term-1691414 Nordquist, Richard. "What's in a Name?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/name-nouns-term-1691414 (accessed June 5, 2023).