What is a Name?

The many meanings of the word name and its synonyms

what is a name

"I wonder,

What is a name?"

Having written so much about names, I began to wonder what exactly is a name.  I thought I knew, but the more I pondered the more confused I became.  Phrases like “in the name of the law” and “name your price” and “name of the book” seemed to spread the meaning beyond the simple notion of labeling.  I decided to look up “name” in a desk dictionary and found something like “A word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others.” (1)

But that just did not seem right.  I know of several entities designated Jimmy Johnson including the creator of the comic strip Arlo and Janis, a former NFL head coach, and my friend I play bridge with.  Put them in the same room and the name “Jimmy Johnson” does not designate or distinguish any of them from the others.  George Foreman, the former boxer, named his four sons, George, George, George and George.  Yes, he can beckon them easily enough, but he’s got a problem when each kid blames the broken lamp on George.

Next I checked the big Oxford English Dictionary.  I found the definition of “name” spanned five pages of small type beginning with:  “1.  The particular combination of sounds employed as the individual designation of a single person, animal, place or thing.”  Then a rambling of dozens of other definitions followed.  It was like reading the rules for cricket.

I was beginning to see why.  The problem is that the word “name” has been used by Anglican speakers over the ages to mean different things, often as a noun but sometimes as a verb, adverb or adjective.  Consider these uses of the word:

— Your name is muzak to my ears.

— If I had a dollar to my name, I could make a name for myself.

— We name Buster as co-chair of the Coffee Fund Committee.

— Janis would name her price; namely everything he owned.

— The psychic could not name the tune in Murray’s head.

— In the name of mercy, take one of my breath mints.

— The name of the article was “Name Actor Seeks Anonymity.”

— Claude could name the state capitals, but not the zoo animals.

Obviously this is a word that carries a heavy load.  As a noun, its meaning is so broad that other words and phrases have been coined over the years to tote some of the baggage.  The following list shows synonyms that serve to mean something like a “name” in some context.  Yet each also has its own connotation or additional meanings.

Synonyms for “name”

personal name, last name, surname, cognomen, anthroponym, autonym, nomen
patronym, matronym, family name, maiden name, married name, birth name,
first name, forename, Christian name, given name, nickname,
moniker, appellation, epithet, byname, sobriquet, agnomen,
hypocorism, pet name, pseudonym, noms de guerre, alias, code name, cover,
pen name, stage name, nom de plume, anonym, brand, trade name,
signature, demonyn, handle, sign, mark, econym, icon, symbol, badge, tag,
place name, toponym, label, title, classification, designation, rubric,
eponym, common name, genus, denomination, class, specie, type.

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The family of names

What's you cognomen

“What’s your cognomen?”

Let’s look at a few of these, shall we say, “nomonyms.” The labels we use to refer to ourselves and other people are what we mean by personal name and which is probably the most intended use of the single word “name.”  Personal names belong only to people and other seemingly alive things like pets, boats, and golf clubs.  They are not brand names or common names.  If you have a putter made by Spalding, that is a brand.  If you call your putter Miss Often, that is a personal name.

James is a personal name, but it is also a first name and last nameJohnson is a last name.  It is also a surname, and a cognomen, and patronym (or patronymic.)  In addition, it is a family name or even possibly a maiden nameChrysler also is a last name unless it is a brand.  Locations can have designations that are like personal names, except we call them place names.

Appellation is often considered to be identical to name although the word is now rarely used except by people who are writing their first novel.  Language purists use it as a kind of descriptive nickname or colorful label as with Honest Abe.

In fact, nickname is a close cousin of appellation (in early England a person’s second name was known as his eke name which became nekename and finally nickname) except nicknames can be silly syllables, as with Moopsy which is also a hypocorismNicknames can be more significant than the formal name they stand in for.  One of the most famous American paintings is formally titled Arrangements in Gray and Black #1, yet you probably know it by its nickname, Whistler’s Mother.

Wistler's Mother

So why didn’t Whistler

call it "My Mom"?

You probably never heard of the 15th century ship Santa Clara, but you know the caravel by her nickname, Niña, named after master-owner Juan Niño of Moguer.  Pinta was also a nickname, but there is no record of her christened name.  Oddly enough, the third ship, now known as Santa Maria (short for Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción,) was probably never called that until Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus.  (See reference)  The small carrack probably was launched with the maiden name of La Gallega, but her crew gave her the nickname Marigalante, while early historical records confer on her the appellations la Capitana and La Nao.  Apparently Captain Cristoforo Colombo simply called her “nao (meaning ship),” a designation at most.

Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria

Nina, Pinta, and La Gallega

Moniker is a slangy nickname.  Actually, some people use moniker to mean name, others to mean nickname, and still others place it half way between appellation and nickname in formality.  Epithets are usually unkind nicknames such as Knuckle Head, and BozoSobriquet, which basically means nickname, is reserved for people who wish they spoke French.

A designation seems least like a name; things like “team leader” and “least likely to succeed.”  Categories like “wolfhound,” “convertible,” and “civil war epic” can also be designations.  Shakespeare’s “rose” aphorism would have been more correct had it read, “That which we call a rose by any other designation would smell as sweet.”  But he talketh funny all the time.

You do not necessarily get a name or title with a designation, just some kind of recognition.  For example,

— Jack’s designation as the person who makes sure the king doesn’t trip on his robe was the high point of his career.

— The designation of the tree stump as third base made it difficult to score from second.

But sometimes with a designation comes a title.

Mr. Chairperson, please use the gavel instead of your water glass.

— I do designate this napkin to be the Last Will and Testament of Cletus Clodfelter.

Sometimes a designation becomes a name.

— March 5 was designated Mother-in-law Day in 1934, but only women with married children celebrated it.

— Stanley quickly learned that his designation as Mr. Manners meant nothing during a food fight.

Unlike designations, which are often ad hoc creations, human titles generally follow some rules.  In one sense, a title is a descriptive and impersonal reference to some person in a particular venue, that is, their rank, profession or social status.  Although personal names like Johnson are hardly ever titles, titles can be personal names, as in:

Captain, shouldn’t we let the women and children go first?

Often people names are combined with titles as common etiquette or common snobbery, as in:

Nurse Jane, will you tell Doctor Killum his patient is still moving.

In another sense, we use titles as the names of artistic things, such as books, movies, songs and paintings.  In this context, the title is the same as name.  There used to be a TV show namedName That Tune.”

Then there are all those “names” people use to hide their identity.  A criminal’s alias is an honest person’s pseudonym.  Ever heard of Tracy Marrow?  That’s because the pseudonym Ice-T has all the fame.  An alias is more enduring than a cover which is used only briefly by spies and bank robbers.  Handle became popular when CB radios were the rage in the 1970s but now means any unofficial namePen names and stage names are pseudonyms for talented people like Mark Twain and Cary Grant.  Animals can also have stage names, like the dog Moose who played Eddie on the TV show Frasier.  And I suppose they can have pen names, too, if they are pigs or chickens.

TV Frasier dog Eddie

“When I meet people on

the street, they still

call me Eddie.”

We could go on and on... but you see the problem.  People have names, cognomens, nicknames, titles, monikers, appellations and even designations.  Places can have names, designations, appellations, and nicknames.  Things get designations, names, titles, brands, and sometimes even nicknames.  It is all so confusing.

Proper nouns… maybe

So what is a name?  Apparently anything from a rose to Rose.  Did we not learn as children (some of us) that a name was really a proper noun?  Or more correctly, a proper noun phrase, a grammatical construct that came about because the word name was too imprecise for the parsing grammarians, and hence for captive students as well.

Consider the following sentence:

Charlotte’s good name was more important to Chip than her Corvette.

The word name in this sentence means “reputation.”  Chip is a man’s nickname while Charlotte’s is a possessive adjective, and Corvette is a brand.  As you can see, the concept of name in this sentence needs crutches.

Such problems prompted the need for jargon that means name in a predictable way.  In other words, the theorists discarded the plebeian category of name and created the category proper noun to which they could now give selective membership.  The badge to this exclusive club, in the English language at least, is the capitalized first letter.

Often proper noun is called proper name (although some linguists distinguish the two.)  This is the term used by Ernst Pulgram, in his Theory of Names. (Why did he not title the thesis Theory of Proper Names?)  He attempts the ultimate precision in his definition of proper name as follows:

“A proper name is a noun used in a non-universal function, with or without recognizable current lexical value, of which the potential meaning coincides with and never exceeds its actual meaning, and which is attached as a label to one animate being or an inanimate object (or to more than one in the case of collective names) for the purpose of specific distinction from among a number of like or in some respects similar beings or objects that are either in no manner distinguished from another or, for our interest, not sufficiently distinguished.” (2)

He said what?  That is serious stuff, and I apologize for getting you to read it... if you did.  But essentially the gist of this definition, like most others, regards names as labels that distinguish people or entities.  Indeed, the notion of distinction and designation seems a prime characteristic of names.  For example, by using names it is quite clear who is who in the following sentence:

— Janice told Mason that Jim was a Don Juan.

Yet the ability to distinguish and make things explicit is not an exclusive quality of names.  We could rewrite this sentence to be just as explicit, and a great deal more interesting, by using no names at all:

— My neighbor told her husband that I was a romantic kind of guy.

As you can see, names are only short cuts for distinguishing items and not really necessary.  You could go through your whole life referring to Nanna as “my mother’s mother” and the consequences would be no more than cocked heads at family get-togethers.  (Of course, over time My Mother’s Mother would become an appellation, then a name in itself.)

Pulgram’s definition shows you to what lengths scholars must go to nail down a concept most people take for granted.  And still their efforts do not really tell us what a name is.  Maybe the more basic question is this:  Must a name be a proper noun?  It would be helpful to have at least one characteristic common to all names.  But alas, consider the following statements:

Proper name

“My proper noun is Tawny.”

— Delores has her Marilyn Monroe wig on backwards.

— You will not be able to Pinocchio your way out of this mess.

— She has Saks Fifth Avenue tastes but Bowery odors.

None of the italicized words — all obviously names — is a proper noun, or any kind of noun.  Likewise, when you name your cat or dog, you do not believe you are proper nouning it.  Your first name is not your first proper noun.  It seems proper noun and name have little in common.  In fact, I doubt that names have anything to do with grammar at all.

Linguists themselves cannot agree on what a name is.  Some argue that the meaning of a name is simply the real-world object to which it refers, while others attempt to show the linguistic meaning of names.  Some say names are disguised descriptions of things (see Descriptivists and Comparing Frege and Russell), while others think they have no purpose in language except as pointers to objects (see Saul Kripke.)  Some say that names have no meaning at all and still others maintain that the relation between a name and its bearer is outside of the study of language. 

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Like a greased pig

If you had not guessed by now, many brilliant people have spent (and continue to spend) a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out what a “name” is.  This philosophical wrangling has gone on since Socrates and has received notice by such notables as William James, John Stuart Mills and Bertrand Russell (who believe a name is an abbreviation of a description,) and more recently David Chalmers.  It is a prime concern of members of the American Name Society and the Modern Language Association.  Around the world in many languages, in academic fields of study like semiotics, linguistics, semantics, pragmatics, and onomastics, scholars have taken the investigation farther than most of us really care about (for more, see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Let me give you a short sample of how serious these people are about this stuff by quoting one sentence I pulled from an internet discussion about language:

“Some contemporary Russellians, defenders of the view that the semantic content of a proper name, demonstrative or indexical, is simply its referent, are prepared to accept that view’s most infamous apparent consequence:  that coreferential names, demonstratives, indexicals, etc. are intersubstitutable even in intentional contexts.” (3)

Such high discourse is the language of the pioneers in linguistic studies.  Instead of name, or any of its common synonyms, these scholars talk of “rigid designators,” “causal theory of reference,” and “natural kind terms” while dueling with language models that jab semantic paradoxes at each other.  As one reads the various theories of names, one visualizes a greased pig that seems always to slip away whenever one thinks it is in the grasp.

Just call me Cat

“Just call me Cat.”

Yet, in spite of this academic debate, we all still think we know what a name is, don’t we?  We all sense that there is a core here, that at the center of all this confusion and ambiguity the word “name” still has a meaning that we all can and do understand.  We know Jane is a name — because we know people who are called Jane.  We cannot clarify the concept by imagining Jane to be a rigid designator.  But we also know people called Pat — but that does not mean that package of letters is always a name.  “Tide” is just a word — until it is a name.  When are these sounds and symbols names and when aren’t they?  Context, you say?  A thing is a name when context dictates it.  Certainly, but what is it that context is dictating?  When is “cat” a common word like “table,” “river,” and “duty” and when is it the vernacular name of a class of meat-eating mammals (Felidae, to zoologists), or the name of your cat?

But wait, you say.  Isn’t a word or string of words a name just because you, or someone, says it is?  For example, I can create a sequence of sounds, like “blug-karn” and proclaim it is a name of something, although I do not know what yet.  It may be the name of a character in my new book, or the name of my next parakeet.  Right now it refers to nothing.  Is it really a name?  Or is it just a potential name?  Some theorists would insist that until it designates some entity, some concept, or figment of the imagination, it is only a series of syllables.

Okay, you do not care what the theorists say.  Yet, think about it — my invented name,“blug-karn”, is only one of an infinite set of potential names and has no purpose until it means something, just like any other common word.  So you see, even for us who are not so encumbered by logic and precision, “name” is like a greased pig.

The brocade of language

But the question remains — what is a name?  We must come up with an answer, or else I will have wasted a great deal of your time.  For starters, we at least know that a name is a series of sounds or a string of symbols.  But so are all our human ideas used to weave the fabric that makes the clothing of our language.  Yet there is something else to names — some quality that makes names the brocade of that apparel.

I believe the grammarians may have touched upon a key aspect of names when they chose to call them proper nouns.  The key word is “proper,” as in “proper gentleman.”  For example, the substance under our feet that we call “earth” is usually a common noun, grounded to a soiled meaning, as in, “The farmer knew the earth was good, but he didn’t know for what.”  Viewed from a loftier station, though, so that it takes on global meaning and astronomic distinction, as in, “The astronaut told the aliens Earth was a good place to be from.” and the word becomes a proper kind of noun; that is, a name.  Take the word “door” that we push around as a common noun in common prose and give that word eminence and authority, as in “Door, I beg you to open in the name of Sesame.” Now it is something special that commands respect because it has gained the status of a name.

hello badge

So what is a name?  It is a proper kind of language thing — one of distinction and discrimination.  It is chosen, conferred and announced.  It always belongs somewhere to something.  It prefers to register in encyclopedias and directories rather than merely dally in dictionaries.  It can travel the world and be understood, like Toyota or Airbus.  It ignores the rules of grammar to become a Bronte adjective, or it can Houdini itself to be a verb.  Names have meanings instead of definitions.  They proclaim themselves on badges and emblems, promote themselves on banners and signs.  They belong to birth and breed, title and tradition.

All the other symbols, signs and sounds in our language are just common words, often chained together, serving a sentence.  They are slaves to grammar, clothed by connotation and context, artless when alone, dispensable when not.

In that garment called language, common words are only threads woven together in patterns and pieces.  But names, they are the brocades that give it class.

(1) Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. (2003) Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc.
(2) Pulgram, Ernst. (1955) Theory of Names.
(3) Sider, Theodore. (1995) "Three Problems for Richard's Theory of Belief Ascription." Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 25, #4, pgs. 487-513.

(See also Common Surnames in the U.S.)

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