Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Meaningless Names

Robyn Rishe was puzzled by a comment in my treatment of Oscar a few weeks back. She wrote:

“I am puzzled by your comment about today’s word, Oscar, that ‘like all proper nouns, it is a lexical orphan’. When I was in China, people often asked me what my name meant, because in Chinese all names have a meaning. I always assumed that somewhere way back in history, that was true of our names too. Otherwise, what are they? Random sounds?

Oscar“The comparison with Chinese brings up a second point—that you are ethnocentrically speaking of names with a European history only. What does Hillary Clinton’s name mean? Nothing, because it is European? What does Barak Obama’s name mean? I don’t know what its derivation is, but definitely not European. Does it mean something in another language? What does John McCain’s name mean? John goes back at least to Hebrew. Does it have a meaning there?”

The short answer to the question is, no, proper names do not have meaning in the sense common nouns have; they merely refer to objects. To understand this answer, however, we have to understand the difference between a word’s meaning and what it refers to.

When linguists use the term “meaning”, they usually have in mind a class of things, actions, or qualities associated with the word’s sound. Thus bird does not refer to one or two birds that hang around our back yard, but to an open-ended class of avians that differ significantly.

At the end of the 19th century Gottlob Frege demonstrated how the meaning of a word differs from what it refers to, its reference. His examples included the phrases morning star and evening star. These are, of course, two different phrases that have two different meanings. Morning and evening are different words with radically different meanings. However, they refer to the same thing: Venus—not even a star!

Now, if meaning and reference are distinct aspects of a word, then we should find words with meaning but no reference and words with reference but not meaning—at least, that would be ideal. Guess what? We find both.

Words with meaning but nothing to refer to include Martian, ghost, unicorn, gryphon, among many others. Most of us have a mental image of what a ghost is, but there is nothing in the real world for it to point to.

Words with references but no meanings include proper nouns. What is the meaning of Jim? Well, I know which person in my life it refers to but that person is not its meaning. I cannot answer the question, “What does a Jim look like?” “A Jim” makes no sense since Jims do not form a mental class like birds do. I can answer the question, “What does a bird look like?” That is because I have a concept of a class of bird objects.

Now, let’s get back to Oscar. I can answer the question, “What does an Oscar look like?” But my answer will be a description of the statuette, not a description of my Uncle Oscar. That is because Oscar® has become a common noun with the meaning “a statuette awarded for excellence in the motion picture making”. It now has a meaning and a reference, like all common nouns.

One final note for those who have waded this far with me. We should not confuse a word’s etymology with its meaning. The etymology of the name Cooper is that it comes from a word meaning “barrel-maker” and is based on the word hoop. However, “barrel-maker” is not the meaning of the name Cooper today because few if any Coopers make barrels. Cooper is a name without meaning even though it does have an etymology that leads to a word with meaning.

6 Responses to “Meaningless Names”

  1. JD Says:

    Hmm, you cannot answer the question, “What does a Jim look like?”

    But what if I ask you, “What does a Percival look like?” or “What does a Vladimir look like?” You might find it easier to answer these questions than, “What does fruit look like?” or, “What does furniture look like?”

  2. rbeard Says:

    In fact, I don’t think you can tell me what “A Percival” looks like. You may be able to tell me what your friend, Percival, looks like but not what a member of the class “Percivals” look like. The “a” is a critical part of my claim since it implies one of a set or class of objects.

    If I knew someone named Vladimir, and saw another Vladimir, I would not be able to recognize the new Vladimir on the basis of what I know about the first one, as someone named ‘Vladimir’. I would only see a human being who could be called ‘Vladimir’, among a 1000 other possible names—if he speaks Russian.

    Someone has to tell me that this person’s name is ‘Vladimir’. When I see a new bird, no one has to tell me that it is a bird. I know that automatically from my knowledge of the features of the class of birds that I have stored somewhere in my mind.

    These mentally stored features of classes of things are what we call ‘meaning’. My memoriy of what Vladimir looks like and is called are is a recollection of what the noun ‘Vladimir’ refers to for me personally. It is a wholly different kind of memory unit.

  3. JD Says:

    A Vladimir is an Eastern European, probably Russian. He speaks English with a thick accent, if it all. He has a burly build. He is light-skinned with Slavic features.

    Yes, this is a stereotype, and like all stereotypes will often be wrong – but it is still knowledge of a ‘class’ and different to my knowledge of my friend Vladimir. After all, your knowledge of the ‘class’ of birds is not foolproof either, and you may plausibly misidentify a bird.

    I will try to prove this by asking you a question: what is more birdlike, a sparrow or an ostrich? Both are birds; both fall into the class of ‘birds’. But I would argue that a sparrow is more ‘birdy’ than an ostrich. It has more of the features of a bird than an ostrich does (flight, for example). In much the same way, my stereotype of Vladimir has a number of features which individuals may or may not meet. In this respect at least, it is as much a ‘class’ as ‘bird’ and certainly far removed from my own personal knowledge of an individual Vladimir.

    Ah, I’m just bored at work. Not sure if this is even a serious point I’m making…

  4. rbeard Says:

    Sorry work is so boring but the point is one that dominated philosophy for some time. “Bird-likeness” is a concept from fuzzy concept logic–mental categories are based on a central set of features with fuzzy borders.

    However, it does not help here since the central features you posit for “Vladimir” do not distinguish the Vladimirs of the world from the Borises, Ivans, Dmitris, etc. The features you mention are all features we derived from the fact that we know that these are Russian male names.

    Now, “Russian” and “male” are meaningful words and there are features associated with them, so we are not surprised that the features of the word “Russian” or the phrase “Russian male” conjures up mental images.

  5. Dutchtoo Says:

    This reminds me of when my youngest daughter, called Rose, came to me one day, quite upset, saying that she wasn’t satisfied with her name because it meant “kind of prickly shrub”. Apparently she had looked it up and found this dictionary definition. I had a hard time explaining that when we named her so, we had the colourful nicely scented flower in mind. I tried to explain something about the difference between a descriptive definition like the one she had found and the actual meaning of a word. I hope it all came across.

  6. 1GR3 Says:

    i think you might be little bit conservative telling that there is no ghosts in the “real world” and not finding similar characteristics to the people with the same name. after all, i belive you must be familiar with sentence “nomen est omen”.

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