Onomastics Explained


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In the field of linguistics, onomastics is the study of proper names, especially the names of people (anthroponyms) and places (toponyms). A person who studies the origins, distributions, and variations of proper names is an onomastician.

Onomastics is "both an old and a young discipline," says Carole Hough. "Since Ancient Greece, names have been regarded as central to the study of language, throwing light on how humans communicate with each other and organize their world... The investigation of name origins, on the other hand, is more recent, not developing until the twentieth century in some areas, and being still today at a formative stage in others" (The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, 2016).

Academic journals in the field of onomastics include the Journal of the English Place-Name Society (U.K.) and Names: A Journal of Onomastics, published by the American Name Society.

Pronunciation: on-eh-MAS-tiks

From the Greek, "name"

Examples and Observations

  • "The study of place-names (toponymy) is closely allied to geography, history, and related disciplines. The study of personal names (anthroponymy) is related to genealogy, sociology, and anthropology. Another sub-discipline is literary onomastics, which examines the use of proper names in literature, and often focuses on the names of characters in fiction (characternyms). A primary requirement of onomastics is the clarification of certain basic terms relating to the concept proper name. In casual usage, proper names, proper nouns, and capitalized words are often taken to be the same thing. That assumption, however, can mislead, because the three expressions refer to three different things which partially overlap."
    (John Algeo, "Onomastics." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. by Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • Studying Surnames
    "We no longer possess some of the more extraordinary names of people you might have met in the streets of medieval England: Chaceporc, Crakpot, Drunkard, Gyldenbollockes (centuries before David Beckham), Halfenaked, Scrapetrough, Swetinbedde—though the London phone book still serves up many that can amuse and surprise. Here, within ten columns, you can find an array that... leaves us with a fine crop of surnames, some enticing, some soothing, but others, names that their owners might not have chosen had they been given the choice. Here, for instance, are Slaby, Slankard, Slapp (and Slapper), Slark, Slatcher, Slay, Slaymaker, Sledge, Slee, Slingo, and Slogan, not to mention Sloggem and Sloggett, Slomp, Slood, Slorance, Sluce, Sluggett, Slutter, and Sly...
    "[T]hrough the twentieth century a taste for these interests developed until the pursuit of surnames, and of family histories generally, became a craze, an addiction, even in a sense a religion, with its own high priests—the species of academic now known as onomasticians (onomastics is the study of names)—and its own private language: non-paternal transmissions resulting from non-paternity events, charactonyms, isonomy, brick walls, daughtering out, lexeme retrieval, uxorilocality. There is even a name for this addiction: progonoplexia."
    (David McKie, What's in a Surname?: A Journey from Abercrombie to Zwicker. Random House, 2013)
  • Incident-Names
    "A striking feature of American place-naming practice is the frequency of incident-names, some of very banal origin. Massacre Rocks (ID) commemorates the killing of emigrants there in 1862; Hatchet Lake (AK) was so-called because a surveyor cut his knee on a hatchet there in 1954; Peanut (CA) was named by the postmaster, who, when asked for his views on a possible name, happened to be eating his favorite peanuts at the time; at Kettle Creek (CO or OR) kettles were lost; and at Man-Eater Canyon (WY) a reputed murderer and cannibal was finally arrested."
    (Richard Coates, "Onomastics." The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume IV, ed. by Richard M. Hogg et al. Cambridge University Press, 1999)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Onomastics Explained." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/onomastics-names-term-1691450. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Onomastics Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/onomastics-names-term-1691450 Nordquist, Richard. "Onomastics Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/onomastics-names-term-1691450 (accessed March 28, 2023).