What's in a Proper Name?

Easy Way to Tell: All Are Capitalized

The Washington Monumen
Nostrix/Wikimedia Commons

A proper name is a noun or noun phrase that designates a particular person, place or object, such as George Washington, Valley Forge, and the Washington Monument. A common noun, on the other hand, is not a particular place or thing, such as a president, a military encampment or a monument. Proper names are uppercase in English.

Types of Proper Names

Tim Valentine, Tim Brennen, and Serge Bredart discussed proper names in "The Cognitive Psychology of Proper Names" (1996).

Here are some of their thoughts.

"Following linguists' definitions, we will take proper names as names of unique beings or things. These include:

  • Personal names (surnames, first names, nicknames, and pseudonyms)
  • Geographical names (names of cities, countries, islands, lakes, mountains, rivers and so forth)
  • Names of unique objects (monuments, buildings, ships or any other unique object)
  • Names of unique animals (e.g. Benji or Bugs Bunny)
  • Names of institutions and facilities (cinemas, hospitals, hotels, libraries, museums or restaurants)
  • Names of newspapers and magazines
  • Names of books, musical pieces, paintings or sculptures
  • Names of single events (e.g. Kristallnacht)

"Temporal names like names of days of the week, months or recurrent festive days will not be seen as true proper names. The fact that there is one Monday each week, one month of June and one Good Friday each year suggests that 'Monday,' 'June' and 'Good Friday' do not really designate unique temporal events but rather categories of events, and therefore are not true proper names."

Bill Bryson on the Lighter Side of Place Names in Britain

Bill Bryson, a humorous writer of nonfiction who was born in Des Moines, Iowa, but decamped to Britain in 1977, then returned to New Hampshire for a time, has now returned to Britain. Here he talks about funny names in Britain in a way that only he can.

This is an excerpt from Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island" from 1996.

"There is almost no area of British life that isn't touched with a kind of genius for names. Select any area of nomenclature at all, from prisons (Wormwood Scrubs, Strangeways) to pubs (the Cat and Fiddle, the Lamb and Flag) to wildflowers (stitchwort, lady's bedstraw, blue fleabane, feverfew) to the names of soccer teams (Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Queen of the South) and you are in for a spell of enchantment.

"But nowhere, of course, are the British more gifted than with place names. Of the 30,000 named places in Britain a good half, I would guess, are notable or arresting in some way. There are villages that seem to hide some ancient and possibly dark secret (Husbands Bosworth, Rime Intrinseca, Whiteladies Aston) and villages that sound like characters from a bad 19th-century novel (Bradford Peverell, Compton Valence, Langton Herring, Wootton Fitzpaine). There are villages that sound like fertilizers (Hastigrow), shoe deodorizers (Powfoot), breath fresheners (Minto), dog food (Whelpo), toilet cleansers (Potto, Sanahole, Durno), skin complaints (Whiterashes, Sockburn), and even a Scottish spot remover (Sootywells).

There are villages that have an attitude problem (Seething, Mockbeggar, Wrangle) and villages of strange phenomena (Meathop, Wigtwizzle, Blubberhouses). There are villages without number whose very names summon forth an image of lazy summer afternoons and butterflies darting in meadows (Winterbourne Abbas, Weston Lullingfields, Theddlethorpe All Saints, Little Missenden). Above all, there are villages almost without number whose names are just endearingly inane -- Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Chew Magna, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, Lickey End, Stragglethorpe, Yonder Bognie, Nether Wallop and the practically unbeatable Thornton-le-Beans. (Bury me there!)."

Examples of Proper Names

  • "Reverend Howard Thomas was the presiding elder over a district in Arkansas, which included Stamps." -- Maya Angelou, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" 1969
  • "Today countless companies and brands, from Coke to McDonald's to General Mills to Target to Unilever, are turning huge profits by deliberately playing into our human fancy (and fantasy) that the past was better -- simpler, quainter, more authentic, more secure -- than our lives are now." -- Martin Lindstrom, "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy" (2009)
  • "My best friend Alex ... Sat next to me ... On my right ... Playing with his Gameboy." -- Malorie Blackman, "Cloud Busting" (2004)
  • "I've been to many places across Canada, like Toronto and Halifax. I have met many Native people who have been through negotiations and have signed agreements or treaties." -- Elizabeth Penashue, "It's Like the Legend: Innu Women's Voices" (2000)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What's in a Proper Name?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/proper-name-grammar-1691545. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, September 26). What's in a Proper Name? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/proper-name-grammar-1691545 Nordquist, Richard. "What's in a Proper Name?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/proper-name-grammar-1691545 (accessed March 21, 2018).