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Metaphor, metonymy and the nounness of proper names

Pierre J.L. Arnaud


Proper names are generally considered as a specific category of nouns. Research may focus on their specificities, but also, in the opposite perspective, on what they share with common nouns. Are proper names, like the former, subject to metaphor and metonymy? After an overview of the characteristics of names and what they share with common nouns, the semantic relations present in metaphor and metonymy are examined, and in particular the source-target relations of metonymy and their taxonomies like those of Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006] and Pepper [2020]. The presence of the tropes is then investigated in antonomasia and three categories of onomastic data, nicknames, place-names and surnames, and their presence appears as frequent and diverse, which answers the above question. The 36 metonymic relations detected are grouped within the two taxonomies, which shows that some general categories have affinities with proper nouns and also confirms the value of multiple-level taxonomies.

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1The range of “named entities”, i.e. entities that are referred to by a proper name, is an immense one. Beyond the obvious personal entities: humans, gods, fairies, etc., or spatial entities: constellations, oceans, towns, etc., we can give names to such diverse things as, to quote just a few categories, trees (Yggdrasil, General Sherman), geysers (Old Faithful, Pohutu), storms (Andrew), British locomotives (Puffing Billy, Mallard), trains (the Flying Scotsman, the Broadway Limited), tank types (the Sherman, the Centurion), swords (Excalibur, Durandal), instruments and machines (Hubble, the Large Hadron Collider), schools of thought and theories (Prototype Theory), intellectual constructions (the Thucydides Trap), institutions (Meals on Wheels, Amnesty International), etc. An obvious direction for linguistic enquiry is to determine how proper names fit in the class of nouns. This article aims at answering an aspect of this question by looking at the presence of metaphor and metonymy in data from antonomasia and onomastics. The first section will consider in a broad perspective the linguistic characteristics of the class of proper names, and the second one will introduce the essentials of metaphor and metonymy necessary for their study in names. The rest of the article will present examples of both tropes and attempt a classification of the categories of metonymies detected. English examples will be used, with occasional additions from French and other Western European languages.

1. The nounness of proper names

2The fact that proper names can be heads of noun phrases and perform functions of common nouns is in part proof of their nominal status. However, they constitute a specific subclass of nouns in syntactic and semantic terms and, given the range of possible named entities, we cannot expect the subcategory to be homogeneous: there is “a grammatically relevant cline from more to less typical types of names” (Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016]). For instance, a number of proper names quoted in the Introduction take the definite article while others do not. An extensive literature about the syntactic behaviour of proper names is available (see e.g. Quirk et al. [1972: 123-203], Gary-Prieur [1994], Huddleston & Pullum [2002: 323-524], Vaxelaire [2005], Van Langendonck [2007], Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016]), into which it is not necessary to delve given the focus of this article. A useful notion from Van Langendonck [2007: 96] is that of the proprial lemma, a lexical unit which manifests itself in occurrences that may be prototypical proper names as well as their semantic avatars in certain functions and constructions, as in It’s the poor man’s Palm Beach, the Athens of the North, or else occur as common nouns in occurrences like He drove a Ford.

  • 1 In Bobigny (Seine-St Denis), Vénissieux (Rhône).

3Semantically, nouns are the names of things, and the prototypical thing is an object, i.e. a concrete entity with an outside surface. Many of the categories of named entities listed in the Introduction, including humans, are in this sense objects, and in this respect, therefore, proper names are not different from common nouns. There are aspects of proper names, however, in which differences appear, and these have been the object of considerable attention. Vaxelaire [2009], however, considers that the investigation of the semantics of proper names has been influenced by the “hegemony of logic”, whose aims are not identical to those of linguistics. Here again, an extensive literature survey is not necessary and the reader is referred to the general treatises mentioned above, plus Nyström [2016], and I will only briefly state the view I take of the meaning of proper names. It is necessary for that to distinguish denotation, i.e. the link between a lexeme and the concept it names, and reference, which is the link between an occurrence of a lexeme and the representation of an entity of the world (real, fictional, mental) mentally present in a given discourse situation. (Gary-Prieur [1994: 244] speaks of a “relation discursive à un individu” [a discourse relation to an/one individual]). In the case of common nouns, reference results, with the help of devices like definiteness and deixis, from the identification of the entity as an exemplar of the category present in the concept, therefore an act of reference is a sort of hypostasis of denotation. This is where semantic differences appear between common nouns and proper names. The concept that represents an individual human or a given place is not a categorial concept, since it represents a unique entity. Uniqueness may be absent, however, as in the case of namesakes, when the mind has several concepts which include, or connect with, information about the different homonymous named entities. This is why we can say “I know of two Tom Jones”. A consequence of the non-categorial nature of the concept denoted by a proper name is that we cannot produce a definition of the name, or we cannot say “*What does Tom Jones mean?”, contrary to the case of common nouns. Does the impossibility of defining a proper name or asking about its meaning indicate that it lacks linguistic meaning, but only points at an individual entity and provides a connection with the relevant encyclopaedic information? We should first remember that in Cognitive Linguistics encyclopaedic and linguistic information are not conceived of as separate (Langacker [1987: 147; 1997]) and the difference is only a matter of activation in the context. Also, some proper names do have a minimal amount of categorial meaning: a name like, say, Annabel Lee tells us that its bearer is female, and the Irish origin revealed by a surname like Mulcahy is not a piece of extra-semantic information. Connotation, defined as the evaluative effect a lexical unit produces, is not absent, either. If a piece of land in the Los Angeles Basin, where holly does not grow, was called Hollywood by its developer, it is presumably because he found the name “pleasant”. In France, Boulevard Lénine1 does not make for a prestigious address. Vaxelaire [2009] quotes the example of Lipton tea which was rebranded as Thomas Lipton, presumably in a marketing ploy to humanize the company name by evoking the person behind the product. However, as stated above, the lexical-semantic content of proper names is in any case minimal in comparison to that of common nouns.

4If the syntax and semantics of proper names have been extensively discussed, less attention has been devoted to their morphology. In this respect, they do not differ greatly from common nouns (apart, of course, from the use of initial capitals in their spelling – if we consider capitalization as being within the purport of morphology).

  • They can be inflected: the Joneses, Mary’s surname.

  • They are subject to denominal derivation: Marxist, Napoleonic, Lilliputian, pasteurize, (to) de-Tucker Carlson.2

  • They form coordinative compounds: Burne-Jones, Baden-Powell, Rolls-Royce, Austria-Hungary.

    • 3 “When Hazel McCallion retired in 2014 as the mayor of the Canadian city of Mississauga, she was 93. (...)
    • 4 In the case of a name like Bomber Harris (the nickname of the head of the RAF’s Bomber Command duri (...)

    They are modifiers in subordinative compounds: Bowie knife, Davy lamp, Jack Russell terrier, Portland stone, Bath bun. They also occur as heads in compound names, attributive like Flash Gordon, Hurricane Hazel3-4 or relational like Buffalo Bill, Tin Lizzie, Typhoid Mary. Etymologically, many British place-names were compounds of common nouns and some are still recognizable as such, like Saltford or Stonehaven.

  • They can take on affixoids: Monicagate, Megxit, Trumpageddon.

  • Blending is possible: Gerrymander, Reaganomics, Peterloo, Bennifer, Calexico, Pyonghattan.

  • They can be shortened: Will, Nick, Frisco, Gitmo (<< Guantánamo).

  • They can undergo conversion: (to) lynch, boycott, hoover, miranda.

5To conclude this section, proper names are indeed nouns, in spite of certain specific characteristics. Although metaphor and metonymy also affect verbs and adjectives, they primarily apply to nouns. Does the nounness of proper names extend to their susceptibility to metaphor and metonymy? The following section is a very general presentation of the principles of these tropes insofar as they are relevant to the study of proper names.

2. Metaphor and metonymy for proper name study

  • 5 Nyckees is critical of a semantic approach that does not take into account social experiences and b (...)

6Since Aristotle and his three principles of memory: similarity, contiguity and contrast, metaphor has been understood as resulting from similarity, or analogy, and metonymy from “contiguity”, a tricky spatial metaphor when applied to the mental domain. Structural linguistics viewed the analogy between source and target as a number of shared features or semes, so as a purely linguistic phenomenon. Cognitive Linguistics introduced a different, mentalist perspective with the publication of Lakoff & Johnson [1980], in which meanings are viewed as consisting of supra-linguistic concepts resulting from our cognitive experience (Nyckees [2007]5). The links present in metaphor and metonymy are therefore seen as existing between concepts instead of lexical units. The essence of metaphor is the mapping of conceptual elements between a source and a target concepts belonging to different domains, frames, scenarios or ICMs (Idealized Cognitive Models) (Kövecses [2020: 50]). However, these hypothetical divisions of the mental space chronically lacked empirical grounding (Riemer [2002], Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006]). There remains the fact that whatever specific cognitive mechanism is postulated like the class-inclusion model or the correspondence model (Wee [2006]) analogy plays a role since without it metaphor simply does not work. Metaphors can be classified superficially, e.g. animal-to-animal or synaesthetic, but the unicity of analogy somewhat reduces the interest of such a classification.

7Contiguity is another matter. Structural linguistics dealt with it by postulating co-participation in a predication or by having recourse to the psycholinguistic notion of lexical association: for instance, wine is in the same lexical field as bottle, which explains why a sentence like We drank an old bottle is not anomalous in spite of the selection restrictions of drink. In a Cognitive Linguistics approach, wine is connected to bottle because the corresponding concepts are co-present in a domain (same remark as above about this notion) and this causes them to be co-activated or “highlighted” together. Metonymy, like metaphor, is a pervasive phenomenon: for instance, Markert & Nissim [2006] found that about 20% of occurrences of country names, and about 30% of those of company names in their corpus were metonymized. It can occur in subtle ways that are not easily detected (Littlemore [2015: 99-104]), as some names in the following sections will show. Another problem is the considerable variety of relations between source and target, which are similar to the modification relations of binominal lexical units (Pepper [2020], Pepper & Arnaud [2022]). Also, contrary to the generally clear-cut examples favoured by authors (Markert & Nissim [2006]), some metonymies, like compounds, are ambiguous in that two or more categories of relations seem to coexist in them, with the additional complication that there occur “metonymic chains” in which the target-source substitution results from the successive application of more than one metonymy. This means that research on the categories of metonymy, and not only its mechanisms, is necessary. Most metonymies, however, tend to rest on stereotypical relationships (Knowles & Moon [2006: 22], Peirsman [2006]), but the many taxonomies that have been published (reviewed for instance in Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006], Littlemore [2015: 19-20]), although most coincide in their most frequently reported categories, are never entirely similar. This difficulty points to the conceptual nature of the phenomenon, as the unlimited number of possible connections between concepts makes them hard to taxonomize and label with words. A well-grounded and fairly recent taxonomy is that of Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006]. These authors decided to approach metonymy by revisiting the notion of contiguity, applying a different, but also cognitive-based, approach, that of Prototype Theory. They compiled a list of types of metonymy and, considering that the category’s core is spatial part for whole, they placed the other types at various distances from it, along the three dimensions of boundedness, strength of contact and domain (e.g. spatial >> temporal). Peirsman & Geeraerts’ list includes 23 types of source-target relations like 13. possessor & possessed (46 types if one considers that the 23 are reversible, which is symbolized by an ampersand between the two terms). It was compiled from a set of pre-structuralist works in diachronic semantics, which, according to the authors, are invaluable for descriptive purposes. Also of interest is the PHAB scheme, which was devised by Pepper [2020] based on earlier work on binominal compounds by Bourque [2014], and is a taxonomy of the modification relations in binominal units (mainly [NN]N compounds in the Germanic languages and prepositional units in the Romance languages, but N + relational adjective units are also taken into account). The scheme was not initially devised for metonymies, but its possible application to them was expressly mentioned by Pepper. Not counting three categories of similarity, PHAB comprises 14 categories, 13 of which are reversible (reversed categories are indicated by an -R suffix). The scheme also includes a very abstract level, which has two categories, containment and causation.

8One problem with lists of 23 relations (Peirsman & Geeraerts’ – another recent list, that of Radden and Kövecses [1999] is not very different from it in that it is comprised of 16 ICMs supporting metonymies) or 14 relations (PHAB) is that they might not be granular enough for applying to proper names, if we consider that Markert & Nissim [2006] found no fewer than six metonymic relations on company names in their corpus, including one, organisation-for-index, which was not mentioned in the previous literature:

organisation-for-index (e.g.
Eurotunnel was the most active stock.)
organisation-for-event (e.g.
the aftermath of Westland)

9Sasaki & Negri Isquerdo [2020] also mention that in their study of names of police operations in Brazil they had to provide labels for relations absent from the literature. In devising a fine-grained taxonomy based on proper names in general, it is clearly impossible to foresee how many types of relations will be detected and I therefore decided to initially use ad hoc labels for the relations and to refer to Peirsman & Geeraerts’ taxonomy and the PHAB scheme in a second stage.

10Metaphor and metonymy do not exist in separate worlds and their relations attracted the attention of cognitive linguists, whose interest appears in the volumes edited by Barcelona [2000] and Dirven & Pörings [2002], but since Goossens [1990], the term metaphtonymy had gained currency to refer to cases where a succession of a metaphor and a metonymy (or the opposite order) links source and target. Note that metaphtonymy is a different issue to that of the possible metonymic underpinnings of metaphor (Kövecses [2020: 34sq.]), nor is it similar to “compound metaphor” (Kövecses [2020: 9]). Although it is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of seeing metaphtonymy in cases that can be explained more simply, we will see that it is present in the domain of proper names.

11Overall, there has been to my knowledge little contact between research on metaphor and metonymy on one hand and research on proper names, and more particularly onomastics, on the other. Of course, occurrences like the following have long been explained as metaphorical:

  • 6

Ernst Mayr, the Harvard University evolutionary biologist, who has been called the Darwin of the 20th century, was one of the 100 greatest scientists of all time.6

12As Van Langendonck [2007: 94] notes, “different readings of a proprial lemma can be linked by operations like metonymy, metaphor, generalization, specialization, and so on.” However, what was in focus was not metaphor in itself but the explanation of some of the uses of proper names (e.g.: Gary-Prieur [1994: 36-37, 174], Van Langendonck [2007: 94, 97]). On the onomastics side, metaphor and metonymy are mentioned occasionally when, for instance, nicknames or occupational surnames are discussed but, again, there is no real intersection of the two domains. What contact there is seems to be limited to a number of articles dealing with automatic metonymy recognition or certain specific metaphors or types of discourse (e.g. Peirsman [2006], Wee [2006], Markert & Nissim [2006], Sasaki & Negri Isquerdo [2020]). The present paper is aimed at bridging this gap by an examination of antonomasia and onomastical data.

3. Antonomasia

13As happens with rhetorical terminology, antonomasia is a polysemous term. In its first sense, antonomasia1,

1. The substitution of an epithet or title for a proper name. Also: the substituted epithet itself [OED on-line].

denotes conventionalized periphrasis as in the following examples:

The Big Easy “New Orleans”

The Desert Fox “Rommel”

Old Glory “the US Flag”

14This kind of substitution, which is frequent in media discourse, need not concern us here. The second sense, antonomasia2:

2. The use of the proper name of a particular individual as a generic term to denote others who belong to an implied type; an instance of this. [OED on-line].

which could be reformulated as “the transformation of a proper name into a common noun”, or “the use of a proprial lemma as a common noun”, is relevant to metaphor and metonymy. Syntactically, the resulting unit has access to more constructions than its source proper name, and semantically, as Gary-Prieur [1994: 37] notes, the link between the source and the common noun may be lost: it is possible to use the cheese name camembert without any awareness of the existence of an eponymous village.

3.1. Metaphor

15The following examples of antonomasia2 are due to metaphor. The basis of the analogy is in pointed brackets. Note that in English there are often two versions, one with an initial capital and one without, in which case the proper name nature of the source is less present.

16- Names of humans, real or fictional, or of mythological or historical entities:

atlas <bears the world>

Jezabel <evil woman>

Peeping Tom <looks surreptitiously at woman>

thug <bandit>

vandal <destructive human>

mentor <educator>

Quisling <traitor and collaborator>

Don Juan, Lothario <seducer>

meander <curvy (like the Asia Minor river)>

  • 7 From the Hindu deity Jaggannath whose idol was drawn in procession on a huge chariot.

juggernaut <moving, towering and crushing>7

Fr. judas “peephole” <treacherous>

French examples from classical antiquity: hercule <strong>, apollon <man, handsome>, mécène <generous, patron>, égérie <woman, inspirator>, cerbère <fierce, vigilant, guard>, mégère <woman, fierce>, sosie “look-alike” <visually similar>, méduse “jellyfish” <has snake-like appendages>.

17- Place names:

spa <has mineral springs >> hydrotherapy>

mecca <attracts people>

eden <pleasant place>

Fr. capharnaüm <disorderly place>

18- Others

dreadnought <heavily armed and armoured (like HMS Dreadnought)>

3.2. Metonymy

19The variety of metonymy is apparent:

    • 8 With a metonymy chain in Fr. bristol “visiting card”.

    place of production for product: cheddar, madeira, china, shantung, Fr. bourgogne “Burgundy”, bristol “fine cardboard”.8

    • 9 Panama hats were made in Ecuador and worn by workers during the digging of the Panama Canal.

    place where worn for piece of clothing: balaclava, homburg, bermudas, jodhpurs, panama.9

  • inventor for invention: mackintosh, macadam, sandwich, Sally Lunn, diesel.

  • famous wearer for piece of clothing: wellingtons, cardigan, spencer, baby doll.

  • original wearer for style of garment: raglan.

20Note that antonomasia by metonymy is a common occurrence with company names: founder >> company >> product, e.g. a Ford, a biro. It is also close to generalization, e.g. Hoover for any vacuum cleaner, Zeppelin for any airship, Fr. frigidaire for any refrigerator.

3.3. Metaphtonymy

  • academy, the grove of Academe >> Plato’s school: place for institution, then “an institution like Plato’s school”: metaphor.

  • derrick: famous hangman >> gallows: person for object of activity, then “a structure like a gallows”: metaphor.

  • Mae West “life jacket (WW2 slang)”: a device that makes one look like the buxom actress Mae West: effect for cause plus metaphor. Or, “a device that looks like a part of Mae West’s body”: metaphor, plus body part for person. This is a good example of interpretational ambiguity.

  • Fr. pactole “large sum”, like the gold found in the river Pactolus: place for object.

  • Fr. dédale “labyrinth”, like the labyrinth built by Daedalus: inventor for invention.

4. Onomastics

21Onomastics is the study of proper names, in which the focus may be statistical, for instance in the study of first-name trends or surname attrition, but it is mainly etymological, as many names of humans and places have been made opaque by the passing of time. For instance, most English parish-names were first attested in Domesday Book, but many had been given to the corresponding places some time between 450 and 1086, so their original meaning might have been forgotten in the meantime and their form modified to fit a new, erroneous, interpretation (Reaney [1967: 18]). Metaphor and metonymy are examined below in nicknames, surnames and place-names.

4.1. Nicknames

  • 10 There is a probably apocryphal anecdote concerning an earlier Tenderloin in Manhattan (https://en.w (...)

22A nickname is a name given to a person, place or other entity, generally as a substitute for an already existing name, but also in the absence of a known name. Nicknames are more frequent in closed communities like schools, army units, etc. They generally display humour, familiarity or vulgarity. If nicknames may be literal, like Nosey for the Duke of Wellington (The Iron Duke by antonomasia1), whose portraits leave no doubt as to the nickname’s motivation, many are ironical and therefore include antiphrasis like Tiny for a very tall individual, or else they are outright nasty. The correspondence between name and referent may be extremely devious and ingenious nicknames are undoubtedly a manifestation of the poetic function of language. Consequently, the origin of a nickname may be unclear or obscure: for instance, there is no satisfactory explanation of the fact that a section of San Francisco is known as the Tenderloin.10

  • 11
  • 12

23The following example is an elaborate one: the Bell Airacuda, a pre-WW2 American warplane, was dubbed the Hangar Queen due to its propensity to incidents.11 This nickname involves a complex calculus of meaning, as queen is a metaphor with a positive connotation (it is, however, prone to ironical use as in drag queen) but hangar refers metonymically to not flying (place for activity), which is contrary to the purpose of an aeroplane. Another plane (the Cessna Skymaster), used during the Vietnam War for “PSYOPS”, which included the dropping of propaganda leaflets, received another humorous nickname: the Bullshit Bomber12 In this compound, the head is metaphorical (the plane is like a bomber in that it airdrops things), while the modifier is metaphtonymic (bullshit includes both a metaphor for “nonsense, contemptible discourse” and a metonymy as what the plane drops is not “nonsense”, an abstract concept, but leaflets: contents for support.

4.1.1. Metaphorical nicknames

24Although places seem to receive nicknames less frequently than humans, examples are not scarce. The following example is illustrative of metaphorical naming:

  • 13 Shackcloth, Paul, 2003, Manchester in the Days of Steam: 1. Victoria Station and the North East Sub (...)

Spouting its many chimneys beyond the junction in the background is Kennett House. This fine Art Deco style building was known locally as “the ship” or “Queen Mary [...]”13

This passage is from the caption of a photograph where the building in question appears as a long, tall block with a row of chimneys, hence the visual analogy to an ocean liner. The Seven Sisters refers to a length of cliffs with seven summits near Dover. Hell’s Kitchen is an area of Manhattan’s former gangland. The narrow corridors prolonging the territories of several of the United States, esp. Oklahoma, are called the Panhandle. An area with a regular street plan in SW London is known by estate agents as the Toastrack.14 Like the “Queen Mary” above, buildings have received metaphorical shape-based nicknames, as in London the Gherkin, the Shard or the Walkie Talkie.

25Nicknames of people are much more frequent, and the tenors of the metaphors are more varied:

the Swede: a blonde character in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, on the stereotype that Swedes have blonde hair.

Pigpen: a character in the Peanuts comic strip who is represented as scruffy.

  • 15 Examples with a dagger were found in the websit (...)

Bambi†-15: a sensitive individual in the armed forces.

Emu: a failed pilot (emus being flightless birds).

Teflon: an individual who always escapes blame.

4.1.2. Metonymic examples

26Physical characteristics provide many nicknames, and those that are indirectly descriptive are frequently metonymic. Since all humans have a head, a face, etc., a distinctive modifier is present, which results in compound nicknames.

  • body part for person: Scarface (the title character of two films), Babyface (Nelson, a gangster), Ratface, Weaselface, Fr. Gueule Tordue “twisted mug” (a Gestapo collaborator with facial paralysis), Sp. Cara de Piña “pineapple face” (the pockmarked Panamanian dictator Noriega), Muscles (tennis player Ken Rosewall, by antiphrasis as he did not have much strength).

  • object of activity for person: Sparks: radio operators, Bones: the doctor in Star Trek and the eponymous forensic anthropologist of a TV series.

  • object of habit for person: Peanuts: from a childhood love of the food (Jazz player Peanuts Hucko), “Jimmy Two-times, who got that nickname because he said everything twice.” (film Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, 1990), Booger: a nose-picker, Fr Papa m’a dit “Dad told me”: a son of President Mitterrand who was his adviser.

  • effect for cause: Coma: a boring person.

  • place-from for person: Tex (Avery), Indiana (Jones), Philly (Joe Jones).

  • Part for Whole: The Dome: a building in Edinburgh, Fr. Les 24 Colonnes: the lawcourt building in Lyon.

4.1.3. Metonymy chains and metaphtonymies

27Given the frequently devious relation of nicknames, metonymy chains and metaphtonymies can be expected.

Silicon Valley, where the modifier stands for the computer industry: substance for activity, possibly mediated by substance for object, in which case this a metonymy chain.

Rust Belt can be considered as a metaphtonymy as it combines a metaphor on the head and a metonymy on the modifier: rust for the steel industry: again, substance for activity.

Spuds “Irishman”: may be analyzed as object of habit for person, but this does not account for the stereotype that potatoes are the staple food of Ireland, so we can add object for place.

Paco “someone with a taste for nachos, tacos, and quesadillas”. Both these foods and the Spanish name Paco (a hypocoristic of Francisco) are associated with Mexico: object for place and the individual is like a Mexican in his love of the foods.

Fr. Picasso: a class of railcars with an unusual driver’s cab on the roof. The vehicle looks like a painting by Picasso: artist for work, in that it has a bizarre shape.

4.2. Place-names

  • 16 Place-names and surnames were verified in the following dictionaries: Cottle [1978], Ekwall [1960], (...)

28Place-names16 vary in their opaqueness. Some have not changed much with the passing of time or may result from recent naming, like Palm Springs (Cal.). Whether they appear as opaque or transparent, sometimes wrongly so, like Slaughter which actually meant “muddy place” (Mills [1998: xi]), etymological work from mentions in early documents is necessary, as for Reaney’s [1960: 41] example Abram (La.), Adburgham in 1199, probably from earlier Ēadburgeham “farmstead of a woman named Ēadburh”. In what follows I discuss the naming process, irrespective of its present-day transparence.

29A type of place-name may be of interest in that it originates in surnames, but it does not involve tropes because it results from honorific or memorial naming. Examples of honorific names are Sydney, Melbourne or Wellington, and Coronado, De Soto, Marquette (USA), originally surnames of explorers, are memorials.

4.2.1. Metaphorical place-names

  • 17 There is another version, however.

30Metaphor is certainly less frequent than metonymy, but not absent, and often close to nicknaming (cases that seem to exhibit irony, like the several other Versailles or Le Petit Versailles in France are best classified as nicknames). Some metaphors are recurrent: Little X names may refer to places inhabited by people from X, in which these places are like X: Reaney [1960: 232] reports that Petye Caleys in Westminster was the residence of wool-staplers from Calais, there is a Little Italy in New York City. Venice frequently inspired names: Venezuela “little Venice” received its name because of stilt houses on Lake Maracaibo;17 there is a Little Venice in London and a Petite Venise in Colmar (France) with canals; Venice (Los Angeles) was a land development, also along canals. Hell Gate in New York is a passage in the East River with strong currents.

4.2.2. Metonymy in place-names

  • 18 Many toponyms in the French Alps include singular Alpe like l’Alpe d’Huez.

31Like most naming, the naming of places is necessarily distinctive, and this is often achieved by picking out a salient local feature. This is explicit in the etymon of Bristol, Brycgstow, generally understood as “bridge-place”. Such a name is directly descriptive and involves neither metaphor nor metonymy. On the contrary, in the case of Uxbridge “Wixan’s bridge”, the Wixan being a Saxon tribe, a settlement was named after its bridge, an important element at the time, with a metonymy that can be labelled as salient feature for place. This metonymy is present in simplex names like Bath (a spa), cf. Ger. Baden-Baden, Fr. Bains-les-Bains), Wells, Poole. The salient feature may itself be a named entity, as in Frome, a town name deriving from that of the local river, or the London district name Elephant and Castle, originally the name of an inn. In the case of the Alps, the mountain range probably owes its name to the common noun for summer pastures18 (the Southern Alps, New Zealand, is of course a metaphor) in the same way as waterfalls gave their name to the Cascades range of the north-western USA. Compounds with this metonymy are more frequent than simplex names, like Sevenoaks, Newmarket, Mountain Ash, Liverpool, Oxford.

32Another category of metonymy is present in Battle, the name of a village near Hastings: event for place. In town names like Sulphur, Radium, Galena, Borax, Gypsum (USA), Asbestos (Canada), we have: product for place. French examples are: la Soie “the Silk”, la Poudrette “the human manure”, la Dynamite. Many British place-names derive from the name of the first settlers. A name like Birmingham (<< Beormingahām) “the settlement of Beorma’s people” is directly descriptive and therefore not metonymic, but place-names in -ing like Barking (Berecingas in 695) “those of the beech-tree” (Reaney [1960: 1]), Godalming “Godhelm’s people”, Reading “Reada’s people” may be ascribed to a Founder for place metonymy. Less ancient examples with the surname of the founder of the town are not uncommon in the USA, as in Tatum (TX), McClusky (ND). This is different from honorific naming, and another case of a proper name producing a proper name of a different category.

33The above was about the naming of places, but established place-names also apply to other places or other entities, as we saw in the discussion of antonomasia. Their presence in surnames will be examined in the following section, but apart from these they are involved in well-known metonymies.

Concerning the above three metonymies, Lecolle [2001] notes that it is not always clear what the exact referent is, and this indeterminacy allows journalists to avoid unnecessary precision.

4.2.3. Metonymic chains and metaphtonymies

34Place for institution examples frequently involve a metonymic chain as in the following: The Hill reacted to President Joe Biden’s decision to pull the nomination of David Chipman [...]26 since this also requires institution for members. The following example is metaphtonymic: He fears that the evacuation of Kabul is a new, “worse Saigon”.27 The evacuation of Kabul is like Saigon and Saigon is place for event.

4.3. Surnames

35The binominal anthroponymic systems with a given first name and a surname inherited from the father in use in most Western European countries are very similar and appeared during comparable periods. English surnames were in fairly general use by 1325 in the South and by 1400 in the North (Reaney [1967: 315]). This means that surnames were originally in Middle English and in six centuries they have had time to change or fall out of use as common nouns, to the point that many, like place-names, have become opaque, like Lorimer “spur-maker”. As in the preceding section, I will be discussing opaque as well as transparent examples, because the focus is on what the names meant when they were first given. Obviously, surnames became arbitrary as soon as they became hereditary and their literal sense became irrelevant: for instance, a woman may be called Wilkinson or Trueman.

36English surnames can be categorized as follows, with a similar typology in the neighbouring languages:

  • personal names and diminutives or hypocoristics. E.g. James, Lewis, Arnold, Baldwin, Harvey, Allis; Austin; Dickie, Dodge, Watt, Wilcox, Parnell.

    • 28 An -s suffix may be present in hypocoristics, as in Megs, Babs (Langenfelt [1941]).

    interpersonal relations: mainly patronymics, some matronymics; the genitive suffix may also occasionally indicate a widow or a servant.28 E.g. Adams, Williams, Sanders; Thomson, Hodgkinson, Megson; Fitzgerald.

  • personal characteristics: Gay, Littell, Gray, Hardy, Rank “strong”, Freeman, Franklin, Whitehead, Armstrong.

  • occupations and titles: a) directly descriptive: Cook, Cooper, Sheppard, Prentice, Chapman; King, Bishop, Abbott; b) indirect: Whitbread (Fr. Blancpain, Ger. Weissbrot), Spence, Peppercorn.

    • 29 The -s suffix may also be present as in Gates, Holmes “islands in fens”.

    place-names: a) toponyms, ranging from names of large entities to those of hamlets or farmsteads: Ireland, Lancashire, Gloster, Norton, Fenwick, Cunningham, Postlethwaite, Ramsbottom, Ravenscroft, Sessions (<< Fr. Soissons); b) common nouns of topographical entities: simplex:29 Gate, Green, Bridge, Castle, Wood, Holt “wood”; prepositional: Nash, Attenborough, Underhill (Ger. Zumthor, Imhof).

  • nicknames: Lightfoot, Drinkwater, Turnbull, Fairweather, Blanchflower, Peabody.

37Note that Reaney [1967: 19], who has a very etymological approach, groups personal characteristics with nicknames, but the definition of nickname given above justifies the distinction. As can be expected, the original motivation of nicknames-turned-surnames isn’t always clear: Drinkwater (Fr. Boileau, It. Bevilacqua) may have referred ironically to an alcoholic (which is clear in Fr. Boivin “drinkwine”), or else to an individual who was so poor that he couldn’t afford beer, a safer drink at the time (Reaney [1967: 281-282]).

38In order for reference to be possible, a surname distinguishes an individual in a community and this is done by highlighting an aspect of the individual, so an abstract part for whole conceptual metonymy is always present. Surnames that were directly descriptive of their bearer, like personal names, patronymics, trade names and some of the nicknames are not relevant here. A title like King may have been due to the natural authority of the bearer or to the behaviour of a conceited individual and thus be metaphorical, but it is much more likely to be directly descriptive of an individual who played the role of a king in a medieval play or was the May Day king of the village (Reaney [1967: 170]). Bullock, Lamb may be metaphorically based on respectively strength and meekness, but they may as well derive from the objects of the activity of the first bearer of the name, in which case they are metonymic. Bird (Fr. Loiseau, Ger. Vogel) was given to the winner who hit the wooden bird at the top of a pole in an archery competition, so it includes a different metonymy. Of animal names, only examples like Fox, Wolf(e) or Peacock can be considered as probably metaphorical.

  • 30 Intriguingly, sources like Cottle [1978] mention the wearing of a coat of mails.

39Metonymic examples are varied. Personal physical characteristics are often represented as compounds, as, for instance, a head is a prototypical part of humans and a modifier denoting a distinguishing feature was necessary: Whitehead (Ger. Weisskopf, cf. Fr. Grossetête “big head”, Fr. Beauvisage “fair face”), Cruikshank “bowlegged” (cf. Fr. Longjarret “long shank”, Courtecuisse “short thigh”). Quatermain (<< Fr. quatre mains “four hands”) may have been the nickname of a greedy individual.30 Unmodified Hand and Foot are possible simplex exceptions, but in all cases, the metonymy is of the body part for person category.

40Surnames stemming from toponyms are also obviously metonymic. Logically, in a place named, say, Ruston, there was no point in calling people Ruston, whereas this would have been a useful distinguisher a few miles away, in a village where people of different nearby origins resided, so the metonymy is place-from for person.

41The case of common nouns of places is different, as they can be used as distinguishers in the local community: an individual living by the gate is thus distinguished from one living on the green. The metonymy can therefore be described as place-at for person, with examples like Wood, Wall, Cross. Other cases are ambiguous. Mill may indicate residence at or near a mill, but also result from metonymic reference to the workplace (place of activity for person) and thus be equivalent to Miller, as with, respectively, Fr. Moulin and Meunier. This also applies to names of potential workplaces like Croft, Castle, Hall or Malthus “malt-house”.

  • 31 Bell may also be a diminutive of Isobel.

42Another category of metonymy affects surnames like Salmon, Sturgeon, Hammer, Spade, Shovell, Bell,31 Wool, Pepper, Cheese, Whitbread (Fr. Blancpain, Ger. Weissbrot): object of activity for person. A few surnames have to do with time: Hol(l)iday (time of baptism?), Winter: time for person. Finally, the explanations for surnames originating from nicknames are similar to those mentioned above: Purdue, an exclamation (<< par Dieu!), corresponds to object of habit for person, and this also applies tentatively to greetings or expletives like Fairweather, Goodyear, Goodenough. The same metonymy is present in the two possible interpretations of Drinkwater, discussed above. Moneypenny (<< many penny) may be interpreted as object possessed for person.

43In turn, proper names of persons may be used metaphorically or metonymically, and we have seen examples in the section on antonomasia, but antonomasia does not happen if the result of the change remains a proper name. This is the case with exemplars or paragons, which are instances of metaphors. Note that the following constitutes an excursion from onomastics proper.

He is no Einstein!

The exemplarity of Albert Einstein as a genius is conventionalized, as appears in the following example:

It is not that we are thinking that we have like an Einstein dog in front of us that knows everything32

but the following, famous and rhetorically lethal example is an occasional one:

  • 33 Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to Sen. Dan Quayle in a TV debate during the 1988 presidential campaign - both w (...)

Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.33

44In a sentence like “Henry James bores me to death”, we have the artist for work metonymy, and surnames can even appear in person for time metonymies, as in the following example:

Yan Morvan captures counterculture in Thatcher’s London.34

  • 35 (...)

45Another example of proper name involvement in metonymy is leader for subordinates, as in Putin’s attacks on civilians raise pressure on US35 as the attacks are not carried out personally by Putin.

46To end this section, and although honorific naming is involved in the second change, we can note that the wheel sometimes goes full circle, as in Washington: place-name >> surname >> place-name.

5. The variety of metonymy

47The above sections have shown the presence of metaphor and metonymy in proper names but, if the two tropes are apparently equally represented in antonomasia and nicknames, there is clearly more metonymy than metaphor in place-names and surnames. Counting types, 36 different metonymies were identified. This is more than the 23 categories of Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006] (see above, Section 2), however, and would make future comparisons with domains other than that of proper names difficult, but it is possible to raise the degree of abstraction by devising a two-tier taxonomy. For this, the 36 metonymies were grouped into those of Peirsman & Geeraerts (Table 1).

48This undertaking, however, gave rise to a few problems: single examples are provided for each category in Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006] and there is no obvious category in which to place some of the fine-grained metonymies found in proper names, like place where worn for piece of clothing or inventor for invention (see Table 1 for decisions); the fact that Peirsman & Geeraerts’ categories are bi-directional results in the grouping of lower-level metonymies that are felt to be semantically different; also, their location stands for origin (my place-from), position (place-at) and direction; these may all have to do with space, but they are notably different notions. These problems, however, are the price to be paid for more abstraction, and the resulting correspondences can be seen in Table 1. The lesson to be drawn is that when a specific domain is investigated for metonymies, it is preferable to use a two-tier taxonomy because, although a general, abstract view is useful, details do count in the description of the domain. As Table 1 shows, location & located, which groups 9 lower-level metonymies, is the most frequent high-level category, with spatial part & whole second with five relations and characteristic & entity third with 4. As could be expected, a specific domain like that of proper names promotes a specific set of metonymic categories.

49In order to confirm the validity of a layered analysis, a second operation of abstraction from the fine-grained ad hoc metonymies was carried out using another scheme, Pepper’s [2020] PHAB (see Section 2). As in the application of the Peirsman & Geeraerts scheme, the task was not absolutely straightforward: whereas both modifier and head are present in binominal units, only the source item appears in discourse in the case of metonymy and the direction of the metonymy must be established carefully by comparison with the examples provided for the PHAB categories. The results of the operation are displayed in Table 2. Location and location-r (10 lower-level categories together), containment and containment-r (7) and source (5) are the most frequent PHAB categories. The semantic space is divided differently by Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006] and Pepper [2020], but clearly, a comparison of the two sets of high-level categories shows that spatial relations, literal or metaphorized like source, are dominant in the domain of proper names. An obvious explanation is that place-names refer to spatial features, but as the examples have shown, space is not absent from surnames, either.

Table 1. Two-level categorization of metonymies with Peirsman & Geeraerts’ [2006] scheme

Ad hoc fine-grained categories

Peirsman & Geeraerts’ categories

City for government

3. location & located

event for place

Place for activity

Place for event

Place for institution

place for object

place-at for person

place-from for person

place for population

body part for person

1. spatial part & whole

Part for Whole

Part of country for country

Continent for country

Place for sports team

object of activity for person

6. characteristic & entity

person for object used

object of habit for person

place of activity for person

salient feature for place

artist for work

7. producer & product

inventor for invention

Founder for place

product for place

12. location & product

place of production for product

place where worn for piece of clothing

Country for government

8. controller & controlled

Leader for subordinates

famous wearer for piece of clothing

16. piece of clothing & person

original wearer for style of garment

person for time

19. time & entity

time for person

contents for support

9. container & contained

effect for cause

11. cause & effect

possessed for person.

13. possessor & possessed

substance for activity

14. action & participant

institution for members

18. single entity & collection

Table 2. Three-level categorization of metonymies using Pepper’s [2020] PHAB scheme

Ad hoc categories

PHAB low-level

PHAB high-level

city for government



place for activity

place for event

place for institution

place for object

place for population

place of activity for person

place-at for person

contents for support


country for government

part of country for country

salient feature for place

continent for country


institution for members

place for sports team

part for Whole


body part for person

product for place

location - R

event for place

possessed for person


leader for subordinates


person for time


time for person


object of habit for person


inventor for invention



original wearer for style of garment

place of production for product

place where worn for piece of clothing

place-from for person

artist for work


founder for place

person for object used


famous wearer for piece of clothing

substance for activity


effect for cause


object of activity for person



50The survey of antonomasia, nicknames, place-names and surnames has shown that metaphor and metonymy affect proper names, but in varying proportions, metonymy appearing as more frequent in place-names and surnames. No fewer than 36 categories of metonymies were identified, and this count is probably not exhaustive. Section 1 on the nounness of proper names was concluded by asking whether, like common nouns, proper names are susceptible to metaphor and metonymy. The data prove that this is indeed very much the case. This, however, is in apparent contradiction to proper names’ paucity of lexical-semantic content. This contradiction disappears if we consider the cognitivist view of metaphor and metonymy as occurring between concepts and remember that the difficulty of their categorization and their frequent ambiguity constitute an argument for the conceptual nature of metonymies (Section 2). At the conceptual level, as we also saw in Section 2, encyclopaedic information is on a continuum with lexical-semantic information, and metaphor and metonymy can make use of all the information available. In this view, proper names and common nouns lend themselves equally well to tropes, which contributes to the “nouny” character of proper names.

51Concerning metonymy, domains like those of antonomasia or human and spatial named entities correspond to sets of fine-grained categories of source-target relations, some of which, like object of habit for person, may be domain-specific, and others, like spatial ones, are simply a reflection of the nature of the domain investigated. Higher-level classification schemes as used in Section 5 absorb domain-specific categories, allowing a broader perspective and making comparisons between general domains possible. They also provide a window on an important aspect of human cognition.

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1 In Bobigny (Seine-St Denis), Vénissieux (Rhône).

2 “Padma Lakshmi has a plan to de-Tucker Carlson America” []

3 “When Hazel McCallion retired in 2014 as the mayor of the Canadian city of Mississauga, she was 93. But while most people her age typically retreat from the spotlight of public life, “Hurricane Hazel” has shown little interest in slowing down.”

Out of context Hurricane Hazel is ambiguous, since it could also be the name of a tropical storm, in which case the analysis would be different.

4 In the case of a name like Bomber Harris (the nickname of the head of the RAF’s Bomber Command during WWII), the following remark by Philippe [2018] applies: “[...] close appositions are now treated as a modified noun phrase with a syntactic head-modifier hierarchy which mirrors the referential dissymmetry between the common and proper nouns. All of which brings CAs closer to modified or complemented NPs, as well as compounds [...]”

5 Nyckees is critical of a semantic approach that does not take into account social experiences and beliefs or the history of language.


7 From the Hindu deity Jaggannath whose idol was drawn in procession on a huge chariot.

8 With a metonymy chain in Fr. bristol “visiting card”.

9 Panama hats were made in Ecuador and worn by workers during the digging of the Panama Canal.

10 There is a probably apocryphal anecdote concerning an earlier Tenderloin in Manhattan (,_Manhattan and,_San_Francisco)



13 Shackcloth, Paul, 2003, Manchester in the Days of Steam: 1. Victoria Station and the North East Suburbs, Cheadle Hulme: Steam Image, unpaginated.


15 Examples with a dagger were found in the website.

16 Place-names and surnames were verified in the following dictionaries: Cottle [1978], Ekwall [1960], Hanks & Hodges [1988], Mills [1998], Reaney [1976]. Other sources are Reaney [1960, 1967].

17 There is another version, however.

18 Many toponyms in the French Alps include singular Alpe like l’Alpe d’Huez.










28 An -s suffix may be present in hypocoristics, as in Megs, Babs (Langenfelt [1941]).

29 The -s suffix may also be present as in Gates, Holmes “islands in fens”.

30 Intriguingly, sources like Cottle [1978] mention the wearing of a coat of mails.

31 Bell may also be a diminutive of Isobel.


33 Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to Sen. Dan Quayle in a TV debate during the 1988 presidential campaign - both were vice-presidential candidates.



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Electronic reference

Pierre J.L. Arnaud, Metaphor, metonymy and the nounness of proper namesLexis [Online], 20 | 2022, Online since 29 December 2022, connection on 16 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Pierre J.L. Arnaud

Université Lumière-Lyon 2

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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