What IS a proper name, Lucy?

Matthews (1987, p300) defines a proper noun as “a name for a specific individual or of a set of individuals distinguished only by their having that name”, a particularly unsatisfactory definition since it involves circularity between the terms name and proper noun, a view also shared by Anderson (2007, p4), and in sharp contrast to the view of Millianism.

Until the Late C20 theoretical studies in naming focused on context and reference (‘who’ refers to ‘what’ and ‘when’) followed the so-called Millianism tradition after J.S. Mill (1806-1873) [Bib Ref]. However, Millianism has fallen out of favour with grammarians since it is now thought that neither context nor reference are absolutely necessary to differentiate between a common noun and a proper name: A more useful model to categorise names is required than is provided by Millianism alone. An effective critique of Millianism is given by J. M. Anderson (2007).

The issue that most obviously arises is that even highly specific names may still be subject to ambiguity. St John the Baptist may be generally considered to be the person in the Bible, but could still also refer to a church with that dedication, or some other oblique reference. This is not simply a matter of ontology, but also grammar. For example in a conversation “I saw them coming at the same time” is ambiguous because the sub-clause ‘at the same time’ might refer to subject or object, both of which are explicitly named within the clause, or a third party implied but not stated within it.

This is where Pragmatics, a branch of linguistics, comes in. It stresses the importance of context to any dialogue. Pragmatics attempts to define the extent to which language generally (but including names) is influenced by context: In principle pragmatics may offer an approach to resolving issues identifying proper names generally, and specific individuals in particular [Ref TBC]. Pragmatics is a reaction against structuralists such as de Sausurre, and the assertion that everything in language arises from its inherent structure and everything can be decomposed from a text if one understands the structure [Ref]. In addition, Habermas is relevant here in  linguistics research through the development of universal pragmatics: this is particularly pertinent to the study of inscriptions and the notion of memes embedded within literature, rather than names simply being identifiers.

Thus Millianism, a system of self-evident ‘truths’ on which all logic and language is based, has little to offer the study of onomastics, a robust refutation of which requires several paragraphs to do properly. However, it may be summarised that ‘truth’ is a variable, not exact commodity in language. Language, and literature in particular is replete with untruths, allusions, double-meanings and down-right contrary statements. Names too, are flexible, meaning different things to different people including the sender and receiver. It is for this reason that the case for a grammar of names advanced most effectively by Anderson, and the study of properhood by Coates will need to be part of my thesis model.

The Lucy in the title to this article is a quote in the Lucille Ball episode where Ricardo announces his presence to Lucille. This quote was then reused by Colonel O’Neill in Stargate SG-1. To understand properhood context, it seems, is everything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *