Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues20Introduction: Proper names and th...

Introduction: Proper names and the lexicon – an exposition

Élise Mignot and Manon Philippe

Full text


1This thematic issue deals with proper names and the lexicon.

2Proper names are defined as words or expressions (of several words) mainly used in noun phrases that refer to contextually unique individuals (people, places, institutions, events, monuments, etc.). Examples are John, (the) United States, New York, Buckingham Palace, (the) Cold War, (the) White House… They may consist of, or include, a proper noun (John, Buckingham Palace, New York), but that is not necessarily the case (United Kingdom, Cold War, White House). Peripheral forms such as nicknames, diminutives or other alternative ways of naming a referent within a sociolinguistic community (Lilibeth, the Iron Lady, the Whitechapel Murderer, the Woman, t/The Bard, the Old Bailey), as well as modified forms due to various stages of antonomasia (a s/Shakespeare), may be retained within the perimeter of proper names for contrastive purposes – with definite descriptions (definite noun phrases referring to individuals uniquely identifiable through the description given in the noun phrase).

3Proper names have already been the subject of a large number of publications, which have considered them from different angles: their meaning, their reference and their grammar / syntax (Algeo [1973]; Kripke [1980]; Kleiber [1981]; Gary-Prieur [1994]; Jonasson [1994]; Leroy [2001]; Vaxelaire [2001]; Van Langendonck [2007]; Matushansky [2008]; Laurent [2010]). Beyond French and English, the two languages studied in this issue, proper names have enjoyed a renewed interest in typological studies, especially dealing with their morphosyntax (Ackermann & Schlücker [2017]; Dammel & Handschuh [2019]; Caro Reina & Helmbrecht [2022]). This issue of Lexis seeks to address the place of proper names in the lexicon: are they part of the lexicon – which lexicon? – and if so, do they enjoy the same status as other lexical items?

4First a distinction has to be made between being part of the lexicon, i.e., a lexeme, and being part of the dictionary (Matthews [1997: 207-208]). Whatever the dictionary (be it a general purpose, a specialized or even a scholarly dictionary), it can only list but a fraction of the lexicon selected by the lexicographer for the specific purpose of their dictionary. While “making it into the dictionary” is indeed proof of the lexical status of a linguistic unit, being absent from dictionaries is far from proof of the contrary. Dictionaries are a practical but necessarily limited representation of the lexicon, one which is updated to reflect the actual lexicon in use. In that light, the lexicon has to do with simple and complex linguistic meaning-form units, words and/or morphemes, stored in the speaker’s memory and available and ready for use in discourse. We therefore equate the lexicon to the mental lexicon, “a long-term repository of relatively stable concepts of types of entities (nouns), states or qualities (adjectives), or events (verbs). It is thus the repository of our culturally shared view of external, mental and social world.” [Givón 2015: 29]. This however does not help determine the place of proper names in the lexicon, as there are as many characterizations of the mental lexicon as there are (cognitive) schools of linguistics that make use of that concept.

5In Construction Grammar for instance, words / lexicon corresponds to the atomic and specific unit at the lowest level of the syntax-lexicon continuum, with lexical categories (noun, verb, etc.), morphology (N-S, V-ED), idioms and then syntactic constructions constituting higher levels in the hierarchy of constructions / steps in the continuum (Croft [2007: 470-471]). Our driving question would then be: are proper names, especially multi-word proper names, to be treated as words / lexicon (simple specific atoms) or as idioms (complex specific atoms, “constructions whose parts are morphologically bound”)? On the contrary, Word Grammar does not recognize a significant difference between grammar and the lexicon, with almost everything being part of the lexicon, as grammatical information is encoded for each lexical entry, and syntax consisting of lexical rules that explain the possible combinations of words (Hudson [2007: 521-522]). With such a definition of the lexicon, questioning the relationship between proper names and the lexicon seems pointless. Intermediate characterizations (such as the one found in Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture or in Booij’s description of Morphological grammar, and to a certain extent in Simpler Syntax) do make a distinction between syntax and the lexicon, which encapsulates the complex specific units Construction Grammar does not classify at the lowest level “lexicon”, such as “idioms” and “fixed expressions”:

The term “lexicon” refers to the component of the grammar that minimally contains a specification of the lexical units of a particular language. The set of lexical units is larger than the set of words. Idiomatic expressions such as to kick the bucket “to die” that are phrasal in nature need to be listed as well. This also applies to the many noun phrases that are used as classifying terms such as blue cheese and yellow pages that form established ways of denoting certain entities. The distinction between the notions “word” and “lexical unit” is important for a proper understanding of the relationship between morphology and syntax, as we will see below. [Booij 2015: 512]

“Interestingly, idioms are also assimilated to the lexicon as “phrasal lexical items” (Jackendoff 1997: 153)” [Taylor 2010: 582].

6The next question would then be to determine the use in distinguishing between multi-word lexical items and phrasal items, and whether the same analysis should apply to each and every proper name: does White House equate blue cheese whereas How to do things with words equates to kick the bucket, or is there a particular nominal node that ought to be applied for all proper names, regardless or in addition to their internal hierarchy?

7What is at stake is two-fold:

  • On a gradient between syntax and the lexicon, i.e., between full-on phrases (constructions) and the atomic level substantives instantiating positions in constructions (Croft [2007: 471]), where should proper names stand?

  • Would that make them more / less nouny, or something else altogether, on the threshold – with other phrasal items – between the lexicon taken as a list of bound atoms and the syntax-lexicon as a hierarchy of constructions?

8In other words, and leaving cognitive linguistics frameworks aside, would a discussion of the lexical status of proper names confirm or infirm their current descriptions in terms of nominal units? What incidence would it have on their lexical category (the part of speech attached to any proper name, should there be one)? Could the answer explain the differentiated treatment that proper names (including proper nouns) receive, if compared with simple and complex nouns / verbs, or compared with phrasal / phraseological units?

9The remainder of this paper provides theoretical background that explains the questions raised in the introduction. In Section 1 we comment on the marginal place of proper names in the lexicon. In Section 2, we look at the grammatical status of proper names (nouns, NPs, other?). In Section 3, we draw a parallel between proper names and poly-lexical units and how they are treated with respect to their insertion into the lexicon. Finally, in Section 4, we present the various contributions to this volume and how they relate to some of the (numerous) questions raised here.

1. Do proper names belong to the lexicon?

10Proper names are very prominent in any language, yet barely visible in conventionally accepted lexical lists (dictionaries). This special lexicographic treatment stems from perceived lexicological differences between the characteristics of proper names compared to other lexical items (this intuition in turn being confirmed by the lexicographic treatment). However, upon close examination, there are arguments that would suggest that proper names are not the special lexical items they were made out to be, and that they could enjoy the same lexical characterization as other units.

1.1. A prominent place in language

  • 1 JRC Names is a cross-language dataset compiling named entities, i.e., expressions used to refer to (...)

11From a strictly numerical view, proper names occupy a prominent place in language. In their report on the multilingual resource JRC Names1, Ehrmann et al. [2016] describe proper names (of person, location, organization) as “an open word class which evolves endlessly”. With 700 new named entities entering the dataset weekly, amounting to more than 1.75 million people identified, 10, 000 organization names as well as about 390, 000 lexical variants registered as of January 2015, proper names are indeed pervasive in everyday language. In comparison, the OED totals about 600, 000 words (past and present) for the English language, proper names excluded. It has been estimated that in a large expanding dataset of a language, “70% of lexical entries already are proper names, and this percentage continues to increase” [Hanks 2013: 35-36].

12Despite their numerical prominence, or maybe precisely because of it, their lexicographic treatment makes proper names seemingly outside the lexical system of the English language.

1.2. Lexicographic treatment of proper names

13A clear indication of the special status of proper names is their exclusion from dictionaries, a fact sometimes noted and discussed by lexicographers themselves as well as noted by linguistics (see, for French, Kleiber [1981: 404]; Gary-Prieur [1991: 5]). As mentioned previously, isolated items need not be in the dictionary to be considered lexical items, but the systematic rejection of an entire category from dictionaries seems to indicate that proper names are not regarded as lexical items, or not lexical items cut from the same cloth as common nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, affixes, and any other word class that do make it into the dictionary. In plain terms, by being rejected from dictionaries, proper names are officially not deemed “normal words”, which may in turn inform on their lexicological treatment: “Proper names are special kinds of words, with special rules governing their role as conventional units of a language” [Hanks 2013: 64]. To each their own dictionary: “common”, “appellative” terms in normal (lexical) dictionaries, and proper names in special compilations of their own (dictionaries of proper names, encyclopaedias, special section at the end of a dictionary, etc.). Such a distinction is surprising, especially if one considers that closely related terms (via derivation or conversion for example) would end up in two different dictionaries despite their obvious connection (Marx vs. Marxism, Shakespeare vs. (a) Shakespeare). While there is now a more or less tacit consensus that proper names should not appear in dictionaries, it was not always the case as until the end of the 17th century and the Port-Royal grammars, the characterization of proper names (mainly of persons and places) as a special subtype of nouns to be treated differently from common nouns had somehow been obscured, if not forgotten – and there were at times pressures to indeed include proper names with the rest of the lexical items in dictionaries (Marconi [1990: 83-84]). Marconi identifies two reasons why proper names would become excluded from dictionaries: the gradual emergence of the distinction between a dictionary and an encyclopaedia, between word knowledge and world knowledge, and the increasing role meaning came to play in the construction of dictionaries, especially meaning analysable into smaller and compositional predicates (Marconi [1990: 87-88]). With proper names presumably associated to real-world salient referents via a direct, unanalysable (referential but not semantic) link, it is no wonder they gradually disappeared from lists of purely denotative, predicative lexical items that had no immediate connection to the extralinguistic world.

1.3. Differences between proper names and other members of the lexicon?

1.3.1. Data from cognitive psychology: proper names are different

14The sheer number of proper names makes it impossible to know and remember them all (or even just some of them) with complete success. On the notoriously lower recall rate for proper names and the difficulty to recall and retrieve proper names, highly documented in cognitive psychology, see for example Brédart [2016] who summarizes the special status of proper names as follows: proper names are associated with retrieving one specific label (instead of making use of several possible retrieval pathways), they enjoy more numerous phonological variants and sub-rules than the average word, the frequency of use of a given name is lower than the frequency of use of non-proper name lexical items, and their semantics is, if not absent, radically different in that they lack descriptiveness. That last characteristic is usually given to exclude proper names from the rest of the lexicon.

1.3.2. Proper names are felt to be devoid of meaning

15The linguistic description of proper names has long been driven by their description in logic: in Millian terms, proper names are “unmeaning mark[s]” that denote – i.e., there is an extralinguistic equivalent – but do not connote – i.e., the right extralinguistic equivalent is not found thanks to its attributes, which connotative units automatically encode (Mill [1960 [1843]]), contrary to definite descriptions, which denote thanks to their connotation (Russell [1905]). Kripke [1980]’s rigid designator theory confirmed the direct connection between a proper name and its referent, without use of meaning, or a concept, or a signified. When adapted into linguistics, proper names were said to refer and to not have (predicative) meaning (among others, Gardiner [1954]; Katz, Baker & Macnamara [1974]; Lyons [1977]), which is why they are paired with individuals instead of classes, instead of denoting classes like common nouns. This has led to the extreme belief that proper names might not even belong to language (as a theoretical system) and only be part of discourse / parole (language in use) (Vaxelaire [2009: 1]). As such, they function as “memorized labels” [Allerton 1987] that belong to the system of things, not signs (Rey-Debove [2012 [1971]: 69]).

1.3.3. L2 acquisition and mixed feeling about the semantic undescriptiveness of proper names and their being attached to world knowledge only

16General belief in the meaninglessness of proper names and their marginal (if not excluded) status in the lexicon is what led to the common practice, in L2 acquisition, of regarding proper names as “known vocabulary”, because they are supposed to have been learnt in the L1 and be part of world knowledge (see Klassen [2022] for a summarized review of the relevant literature on proper names and meaning). However, Klassen notes that evidence from comprehension tests comparing Known Names and Unknown Names would suggest that one cannot do away with a theory of (some sort of) meaning, or sense, attached to proper names altogether. Indeed, if “ignorance of a man’s name is not ignorance of the language” [Strawson 1950: 338] in L1, the same might not be true in L2, since learners are often unable to infer the meaning of an Unknown Name from context and in turn have a harder time understanding the entire excerpt, so something must be learnt about proper names, and that could be their “meaning”.

1.4. Why proper names are part of the lexicon after all

17“Meaning” is easily transferable to proper names in the case of “impure”, or “hybrid” proper names containing lexical items such as nouns or adjectives, whose predicative properties and internal hierarchy are theoretically “suspended” (Siblot [1987]) within the proper name, but can still resurface – and therefore be translated. This is why Frege [1948] felt that for the same reference (Bedeutung) to Venus, two distinct proper names (the) Morning / Evening Star could have two distinct meanings (Sinn): they were derived from the descriptive meaning attached to the proper name’s components. This also explains why, upon reading Gare du Nord, or to a certain extent Chicago Union Station and King’s Cross, one expects to see trains soon.

18It has to do with two kinds of presuppositional meaning (Van Langendonck [2007: 71-84]: categorial / sortal meaning – whereby proper names convey a sense of the most relevant onomasiological category the referent belongs to: here, railway station; with Elise, a female human being (Anderson [2007: 158]) – as well as associative meaning: all sorts of additional information about the referent that speakers and co-speakers activate upon producing / hearing / reading a proper name (origin, socioeconomic status, purpose; positive or negative connotations and subjective investment in the referent, i.e., emotive meaning). What makes changing the names of churches or streets relevant, as well as marketing strategies effective (names of shops, new products, campaigns, etc.), is precisely that reliance on the meaningfulness of proper names, which inserts them into a semantic network and assigns them a significant place in it.

19Perhaps that last property is the most convincing argument of proper names being lexical items yet, in the sense that they behave exactly like them. Just like nouns or verbs activate a conceptual frame encompassing concepts denoted by other lexical items, organizing them according to vertical or horizontal onomasiological hierarchies (synonymy, hypernymy, hyponymy, partonymy, etc.) within conceptual domains – /office/ >> /desk/, /chair/, /window-windowless/, /cubicle/, /open space/, /colleagues/, /coffee machine/, /boss/, /opening hours/… – so do proper names: /Gare du Nord/ >> with /St Pancras/ and /King’s Cross/ and /Chicago Union Station/ in the “train station” category, /King’s Cross/ >> /station/, /London/, /St Pancras/, /Harry Potter/, /architectural design/, /art installations/, /pubs and restaurants hotspot/… There is no need to denote a class in order to be inserted in the network of lexical relations and truly be “lexical”, which calls for a reanalysis of the lexical status of proper names and a systematic proper name lexicology alongside onomastics (Vaxelaire [2001; 2009]). The mental lexicon is that lexical network, of which names and other words are “two communicating and integrated parts” [Nyström 2016].

20If that were not enough, many linguists postulate that proper names also have something close to the predicative meaning of lexemes found in the dictionary: proper names in non-modified uses are said to have either procedural meaning (or instructional meaning) (Kleiber [1995]) in which, just as with pronouns, the speaker sends instructions to find the right referent based on one abstract property (“bearing the name X”) or predicative meaning, in which the meaning of a proper name runs along the lines of “X or [entity] or [country] or… which has the property of being called /N/” (Algeo [1973]; Rey-Debove [1978]; Gary-Prieur [1994]) in non-modified uses, and a more refined predicate in modified uses (belonging to a group/dynasty, metaphor, metonymy, etc.).

21However little / much meaning one agrees to grant proper names, it seems that they indeed belong to the same lexicon as the rest of the other units, and that they are not essentially different from the rest of the lexical items, as far as the lexicon as a network of lexical relations is concerned. The syntactic characterization of proper names as lexical items is of interest in this issue, which aims to add to the oft-asked question of the lexical category of proper names: nouns, not nouns, more than nouns? Should they be assigned a part of speech, or should they be analysed with other models in mind (like poly-lexical units and idioms)?

2. What could be the linguistic characterization of proper name lexemes: lexical, syntactic, or a little bit of both?

22If proper names are lexemes, how can they be characterized? One approach consists in adopting a mainly lexical perspective.

2.1. Proper names as “lemmas” (a lexical perspective)

23A difference must be established between lexical items and the way they are used (Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016: 6]). Proper names are lexical items (which, incidentally, makes it clear that for the authors, proper names, whatever their grammatical status, are part of the lexicon) that are used as proper names. For instance, the lemma Mary has the potential to be used as a name. In fact, it may underline a number of referents, such as Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Stuart, etc.; but it has an independent existence as a lexeme. Some lemmas (like Mary) are admittedly more likely than others to end up being used as proper names (they have an onomastic valency), and may therefore be called “name lemmas”, or “proprial lemmas”. This, however, remains one of several possible uses: proprial lemmas, although typically used as names, also allow common use, as in I was thinking of a different Mary. Conversely, names can be based on all kinds of lemmas, not just proprial ones. Examples are Gladiator (the name of a film, based on an “appellative” lemma), the Old Man and the Sea (the title of a novel, based on a phrasal lemma). Proprial lemmas can be further subdivided into personal name lemmas, place name lemmas, etc.; but again, this only reflects a typical use, and there is nothing that prevents a personal name lemma such as Mary from being used as the name of, say, a boat (Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016: 7]).

24Now this, as convincing as it seems, leaves the issue of part of speech assignment open. Are proprial lemmas nouns? Proper names may be assigned to a “comparative concept” (in the vein of Haspelmath [2010] – there are proper names in all languages), but that does not tell us which lexical class (/ part of speech) they belong to.

2.2. Can proper names be assigned a part of speech?

25If proper names are part of the lexicon, we may expect them to be associated with a part of speech label. This is indeed (almost) systematically the case for the other items of the lexicon, as testified by their treatment in dictionaries (when they are entered in the dictionary). It is a striking fact that dictionary entries are normally described as verb, noun, preposition, etc., this characterization being in fact the very first one that is provided, before meaning. There are admittedly some exceptions to this overwhelming tendency; in the Concise Oxford Dictionary [Stevenson & Waite 2011], for instance, some entries (like C.I.A) are labelled as “abbr”, rather than assigned to a lexical class. Yet the label “abbr” remains rather infrequent, and overall, the vast majority of entries is associated with a part of speech label.

26Which part of speech, then, should proper names be assigned to? The question is not new: Sørensen [1958], cited in Anderson [2004: §1.4] attempts to establish the place of names in English within the system of word-classes, and, since then, several answers have been provided – the most common one being that proper names are nouns.

2.2.1. Nouns?

27Significantly, as noted by Gary-Prieur [1991: 5], proper names are mentioned in grammar textbooks in sections dedicated to the lexical class of nouns, thus making it obvious that they are felt to be a subcategory of nouns. In fact, as seen earlier, there are many debates regarding the meaning of proper names, but hardly any dissensions as to their lexical status. The pervading view, since Antiquity, is that names are a subcategory of nouns, alongside common nouns (Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016: 8]; Vaxelaire [2009]). This is in keeping with the classical terminology, which distinguished the onoma kyrion (or nomen proprium) and the onoma proseigorikon (or nomen appellativum), both belonging to the nominal category (Gary-Prieur [1994: 243]) – a view still shared by Chomsky [1965], who describes the nominal class as being made up of both common and proper nouns (“N>>[+N  ±common]”).

28The view that proper names are nouns, however, is not without its difficulties. First, some consist of poly-lexical units (e.g. United Kingdom). Can we really describe those as “nouns”? Is not United Kingdom made up of a (adjectivized) past participle and a noun? We may accept that, taken together, they form a compound noun. But how, then, do we describe such names as How I met your mother, a clausal unit?

29Another issue that arises has to do with (implicit) determination. If proper names are nouns, but also, in the way they are used, closely resemble definite expressions, it is tempting to say that they are definite nouns. But can we possibly say that a noun is definite? Does the category of definiteness not apply to noun phrases, rather than nouns?

30Now, if it is not entirely satisfactory to treat all names as nouns, even proper nouns, what else could they be? And does the difficulty to assign them to a part of speech challenge the view that they are part of the lexicon? Another option is to label them as “determinatives”.

2.2.2. Determinatives?

31Proper names bear a resemblance to deictics (Anderson [2004]; Jonasson [1994]) in that they identify uniquely without naming a category, and thus enable “primary identification” [Anderson 2004]. Consequently, another option is to treat them as “determinatives” (Anderson [2004: 452; 2003; 2007]), for whom names “are no more nouns than are pronouns” [Anderson 2004: 436], and should be grouped together with pronouns and determiners, which are referential, but non-predicable (Anderson [2004: 289]). This, for the author, solves the issue of definiteness, as proper names are inherently neither definite nor indefinite, but acquire definiteness when they are used as arguments. They are not definite in I name this child Basil or Their youngest child is called Basil, and definiteness only comes if the name is used as an argument (I saw Basil).

32Grouping names together with determiners and pronouns certainly helps bring out some of their characteristics and resemblances with other items of the lexicon, such as pronouns. However, just as we may consider pronouns to be both items of the lexicon and noun phrases in their own right, proper names may also be treated as such, and it may be argued that the most relevant level of description for them is not the word, but that of the syntactic unit.

2.3. More than a lexical word, a syntactic unit?

33If proper names are best described as syntactic units, one possible level is that of the noun phrase.

2.3.1. Noun phrases?

34The possibility for proper names to make up noun phrases is noted by Grévisse [1970] (cited in Gary Prieur [1991: 7]). This does not necessarily entail that proper names are noun phrases; in fact, Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016] argue that proper names are definite nouns, which is not the same thing. Yet the more radical view that proper names are noun phrases is adopted by e.g., Coates [2006] (quoted in Van Langendonck & Van de Velde [2016: 8], Kleiber [1981] (for whom proper names include a definite determiner), Vendler [1967: 33-69] (cited by Gary-Prieur [1991: 15]), and also Chomsky [1965], for whom (in apparent contradiction to his statement that names are a sub-category of nouns, as noted by Gary-Prieur [1991]), names are nouns that can make up a (definite) noun phrase without the help of a determiner.

35This characterization of names as noun phrases accounts for the fact that they can be used, as, say, subjects, or objects in a clause. However, how do we deal with such examples as Je préfère le Pierre d’avant la guerre / La France est un pays tempéré [Gary-Prieur 1991, her examples]? If all names are noun phrases, must we conclude that in the noun phrase le Pierre d’avant la guerre, determiner the is followed by a noun phrase (i.e., Pierre)? How often is a determiner followed by a noun phrase (rather than a noun)?

36Moreover, if proper names are noun phrases, can we still argue that that they belong to the lexicon? Must we accept that (at least some) noun phrases may enter the lexicon? How do they do that?

2.3.2. Nominals?

37If proper names are (at least partly) unsatisfactorily characterized both at word and phrase levels, an alternative option is to turn to the intermediate syntactic unit between the two, i.e., that of the nominal. A proper name would then be a nominal (Philippe [2020]), just like old man in the noun phrase the old man.

38Proper names do indeed assume the typical functions of nominals, in particular when they occur in pre-modifying position (e.g., a United Nations official) or in short appositions (e.g., my aunt Mary). Here we cannot possibly describe them as noun phrases (it is debatable for close appositions still, but we follow Acuña-Fariña [2016]). They are also clearly nominals in their modified uses (a Shakespeare), when they behave like (common) count nouns. Although the status of nominal is less obvious in their non-modifying and non-modified uses (e.g., John likes popcorn), there is no reason to suppose that these more prototypical examples differ, and that proper names are not nominals in those cases too.

39But if proper names are really nominals, how can we maintain that they are part of the lexicon? Nominals involves a syntactic hierarchy: they have a head, and at least in some cases, internal dependents (Huddleston & Pullum [2002: 340]); in the old man, for instance, man is the head of the nominal old man before being the head of the noun phrase the old man. As such, they cannot be said to be part of the lexicon. What “nominal” really refers to is a syntactic position, which may be instantiated either by a syntactic construct (head + dependents), or just a lexical unit – with, potentially, a fine line between the two, in the case of poly-lexical units; all the more so as occupying the position of nominal may permit, or facilitate, the insertion of an initially syntactic unit in the lexicon, therefore potentially accounting for (some) processes of lexeme creation.

3. Poly-lexical units, lexical status past, present and future: where do proper names fit?

40If a nominal is a syntactic position intermediary between noun and noun phrase that is instantiated minimally by a noun and maximally by a noun and all its modifiers and complements, then being a nominal does not necessarily entail being a lexical item (or being a completely syntactic item either): indeed, both

  • syntactic combinations of ADJ + NOUN, such as green house (this house is green can you see [the dét [[green]sadj-mod house noun-head]nominal]?),

  • and poly-lexical units having a linear syntagmatic organization in ADJ + NOUN as well as an internal syntactic hierarchy, such as greenhouse (a compound: can you see [the dét [green adj-modhouse noun-head]noun-nominal]?)

can be described as nominals. Given that proper names are often described at the noun phrase level, it seems only logical to discuss whether they align more with lexical or syntactic poly-lexical units. Indeed, there is a strong case for assimilating United Kingdom with greenhouse rather than green house, contrary to what the noun phrase analysis (or syntactic nominal analysis) would suggest.

41Because there is no possible paradigmatic change within proper names without a significant change in the referent associated with it, when there is such another existing referent (United Kingdom vs. Reunited Kingdom; World War I vs. World Conflict I vs. World War II; Charlotte vs. Emily vs. Anne Brontë), proper names are lexically constrained as would a compound. Their failure to be completely transparent, being arbitrary signs that do not describe their referent, also makes them akin to compounds and more generally to the noun part of speech, which has a strong affinity with (formal, syntactic and) semantic opacity (Mignot [2017]). Expletive inflexion would tend to tip the balance even further toward a lexical unit: McMillan [1980] lists proper names within the main cases of lexical insertion (or infixing), like e-X-nough every-X-bod, 19-X-43 or So-X-ho, Sir X Lancelot, rather than syntactic interposing, in which an adjective, a noun or phrase, interrupts a syntactic combination or a collocation, such as all X day, hell’s X bells, what X…? – with the notable exception of King’s bloody Cross (compared with bloody King’s Cross) analyzed in the syntactic interposing section rather than the lexical infixing one (but only to illustrate the desemanticization of the insert.

42Despite these arguments, proper names are not given the lexical status of “term” or “terminological phrase” (Boulanger [1989]) or complex terminology, the way lipstick, forget-me-not, father-in-law, or chemin de fer and crayon à papier have been given in English and French respectively. How come some enjoy a full-fledged lexical status and a POS, with their own entry or sub entry in the dictionary (as a lexicographic consequence) but proper names do not? Once more the analysis differs depending on the proper name: while nothing is said about opaque “pure” proper names, transparent and still slightly motivated proper names such as Côte d’Azur (lit. Azurean Coast, French Riviera) or Pays Bas (lit. Low Country / Low Countries, Netherlands) are analysed as intermediary between nicknames (Iron Lady, proper name, no POS) and “complex terminology” (clé à molette, monkey wrench, n.) (Rey-Debove [1995]). Interestingly enough, proper names are treated like complex lexical items when they are more semantically and syntactically analysable, which makes them less proper names but also closer to syntactic nominals. However, as noted in Bauer [1983: 49], opacification is not necessary to achieve lexicalization. The difference then is their being fixed sequences with little room for morphosyntactic change. As such, they belong to a mass of poly-lexical units that outnumber monolexical units, transcend part-of-speech as some fixed sequences may have a POS and other, even subphrasal ones, do not, may be found in lexical as well as grammatical units, and are organized on a gradient of fixedness and on a syntactic-lexical cline (see Mejri [2005] for a summary on the topic). Being pulled toward the noun phrase or nouns and more syntactically constrained than other fixed sequences such as collocations or idioms, proper names are probably described as being on the right end of the syntax-lexicon cline, which would allow some of them to pass for regular (albeit complex) lexical terms and would facilitate the historically constant back and forth between appellative units and proper names (Coates [2016]).

43Close to proper names, if not proper names themselves, are other units illustrating overall morphologically constrained properties with internal free lexical choices, such as email addresses or even hashtags (Caleffi [2015]) – see for instance how #MeToo, first one such poly-lexical unit akin to #linguistics, has now crossed over to proper names: its high frequency of use as well as its potential to describe (or maybe shape) a new social movement through hypostatization are two main reasons why it should be considered lexicalized, following Lipka [1977; 1981; cited in Hohenhaus 2005], and this might be true of many a proper name. What makes proper names proper names (namely, a logical, social, linguistic baptism of a given reality) is but an explicit example of what makes lexical items lexicalized, i.e., institutionalization: a collective, officialized and reiterated decision to include a unit within the list of lexical items in use in the linguistic community (Hohenhaus [2005]). Institutionalization could thus be seen as the sociolinguistic primary step that validates lexicalization, which also makes use of desemantization, hypostatization, frequency of use and word-formation processes as entry points into the lexicon as well as tools for further lexicalization. One may think of how proper names, once institutionalized, then syntactically and semantically modified, may also be morphologically confirmed as lexical items through antonomasia ((un) Harpagon, (une) poubelle, (a) Shakespeare, (a) Hermes for a bag, (an) albert, for albert-chain), or as essential parts of other lexical units through derivation, compounding, combining forms etc.: Aladdin’s cave, Brussels sprouts, Macronist, trumponomcics, instafood

44From a diachronic or synchronic point of view, proper names seem to fit right into the theory of the lexicon as a dynamic object, which linguistic units of any size, POS, syntactic or semantic status, can enter or leave (and re-enter, etc.) according to a balanced yet ever-shifting blend of cognitive, semantic and morphosyntactic properties and actual use in discourse. In fact, they illustrate it so well that it may escape notice that it is exactly what occurs with other lexical units, keen as we are to make proper names exceptional in every respect, when all that is an exceptional is their sheer number.

4. This issue’s contributions

45The various contributions to this issue reflect the many different directions the relation between proper names and the lexicon can take us.

46The first two articles address the formal characteristics of proper names. Monserrat Rangel-Vicente, in “Nature morphologique des noms propres et lexicalisation”, studies a selected corpus of toponyms (names of towns and villages) found in the French-speaking press and addresses two main questions: can the lexical status of a proper name be correlated with its degree of semantic opacity? Are there rules concerning a proper name’s syntactic heaviness that constrain the creation of toponyms that would be accepted as lexical items on a par with other lexical categories, i.e., as proper noun lexemes? A threshold of maximum complexity is identified. Lexeme labelling is further discussed in Manon Philippe & Élise Mignot’s article “How proper names enter the lexicon – From the Central Intelligence Agency to CIA: the reduction of full denominative expressions interpreted as a means to achieve (greater) lexicalization”. Starting with the observation that dictionaries sometimes include non-modified poly-lexical proper names under the disguise of their reduced form labelled “abbr”, which is not a lexical category in itself, they discuss the potential for reduction processes to integrate what could otherwise be called phrasal items into the lexicon in the strictest sense of the term, with a different syntactic and referential profile than the full form.

47The next three articles offer different perspectives on the cognitive lexical relations at work within proper names or between proper names and other lexical items, to see whether proper names deserve their special (marginalized) treatment or if, on the contrary, this could be proof of the lexical and even “nouny” status. In “Metaphor, metonymy and the nounness of proper names”, Pierre J.L. Arnaud draws on a corpus of anthroponyms and toponyms to identify metaphoric and metonymic relations, classified using the taxonomies established in Peirsman & Geeraerts [2006] and Pepper [2020]. The considerable use of metaphor and metonymies in proper names (especially in place-names and surnames) was found consistent with the cognitive porosity between concepts that ambiguous uses of proper names allow for and with the representation of information on a gradient from encyclopaedic to lexico-semantic, bringing proper names and common nouns closer still and confirming their nouny character. Aurélie Héois carries on with the analysis of metonymic lexical relations in “What can verbal derivation tell us about proper names?”. Verbs derived from proper names most notably require at least one more metonymic step than verbs derived from common nouns, in line with previous findings on the number of metonymies according to the type of base (Janda [2011]). This may confirm that proper names adopt a similar yet not identical lexical behaviour to that of common nouns, potentially questioning their being a sub-kind of nouns, although it may also be the result of derivational semantic constraints rather than a definitional difference between proper names and common nouns. Finally, Silvia Cacchiani studies the metonymic relations between proper names and common nouns in N+N patterns denoting fashion terms in “From proper name to epithet: motivation and change in the fashion industry”. The associative meaning is given pride of place to explain how proper name-common noun metonymic fashion terms prove so efficient, drawing from encyclopaedic knowledge of the referent and the classifying use of the noun-noun pattern to blur the boundaries between classifying appellatives and proper names.

48In the next article, “Quand le nom propre devient une particule élémentaire de la matière : étude contrastive des éponymes Higgs boson et boson de Higgs et de leurs substituts dans des textes spécialisés et vulgarisés”, Tiffany Jandrain delves into the specialized field of physics to explore the possible denominative variants of a famous boson across languages (English and French) and across genres (“specialized” and “popularized” texts, Pic & Furmaniak [2010]). The incomplete and controversial Higgs boson eponym is compared with several forms that involve common noun ellipsis and metonymy or replacement by a description, which should question the proper name status of eponyms. Closing the thematic issue is Frédérique Brisset’s article “Nom propre et désignateur rigide : la traduisibilité de l’onomastique au prisme du cinéma”, in which she discusses how the dubbing of proper names in films should lead to reevaluating their lexical status, as their untranslatability along with their characterization as rigid designators are called into question. This contradiction between the rigid designation of proper names and the wealth of associative features that the translation of films needs to convey is shown through a case study drawing on a set of Woody Allen films translated into French.

49Included in the Varia section are three articles: in “The history, linguistic status and potential of the term dramway”, Richard Coates studies the history, onomastics and potential lexical and syntactic status of the onymoid dramway; in “Making metaphor studies less WEIRD. The methodological benefits and challenges of a greater diversity of languages and cultures in the study of metaphor”, Simon Devylder calls for more cultural and contextual information to increase rate-agreement among annotators of metaphor across languages; in “Context concreteness for the second constituent slows down compound-word processing”, Chariton Charitonidis evaluates the effects of valence, arousal and concreteness norms on English compounding, with a noticeable impact on response times across lexical decision and naming.

Top of page


Ackermann Tanja & Schlücker Barbara (Eds.), 2017, The Morphosyntax of Proper Names, Folia Linguistica Vol. 51 (2), Berlin: De Gruyter.

Algeo John, 1973, On Defining the Proper Name, Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Allerton David John, 1987, “The linguistic and sociolinguistic status of proper names. what are they, and who do they belong to?”, Journal of Pragmatics 11 (1): 61–92.

Anderson John M, 2004, “On the grammatical status of names”, Language 80 (3), 435-474.

Anderson John M, 2007, The Grammar of Names, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bauer Laurie, 1983, English Word-Formation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Booij Geert E., 2015 [2009], “Morphological analysis”, in Heine Bernd & Narrog Heiko (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 449-472.

Boulanger Jean-Claude, 1989, « Le statut du syntagme dans les dictionnaires généraux monolingues », Meta : Journal des Traducteurs 34 (3), 360‑369.

Brédart Serge, 2016, “Names and cognitive psychology”, in Hough Carole (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 476-487.

Caleffi Paola-Maria, 2015, “The ‘hashtag’: A new word or a new rule?”, Skase Journal of Theoretical Linguistics 13 (2).

Caro Reina Javier & Helmbrecht Johannes, 2022, Proper Names versus Common Nouns: Morphosyntactic Contrasts in the Languages of the World, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Cartier Emmanuel, 2018, « Noms propres et innovations lexicales. Étude linguistique et statistique à partir de Néoveille », Cahiers de Lexicologie n°113, 203-224.

Chomsky Noam, 1965, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Coates Richard, 2006, “Properhood”, Language 82 (2), 356-382.

Coates Richard, 2016, “Railway locomotive names and train names” in Hough Carole (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 645-654.

Croft William, 2007, “Construction grammar”, in Geeraerts Dirk & Cuyckens Hubert (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 463-508.

Dammel Antje & Handschuh Corinna (Eds.), 2019, Grammar of Names, STUF Language Typology and Universals 72 (4), Berlin: De Gruyter.

Ehrmann Maud, Jacquet Guillaume & Steinberger Ralf, 2016, “JRC-Names: multilingual entity name variants and titles as linked data”, Semantic Web 8 (2), 283-295.

Frege Gottlob, 1948, “Sense and reference”, The Philosophical Review 57 (3), 209-230.

Gardiner Alan, 1954, The Theory of Proper Names. A Controversial Essay, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gary-Prieur Marie-Noëlle, 1991, « Le nom propre constitue-t-il une catégorie linguistique ? », Langue française 92 (1), 4-25.

Gary-Prieur Marie-Noëlle, 1994, Grammaire du nom propre, Paris: PUF.

Givón Tom, 2015 [2009], “The adaptive approach to grammar”, in Heine Bernd & Narrog Heiko (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 43-64.

Grévisse Maurice, 1970 [1936], Le bon usage, 9th edn., Gembloux: Duculot.

Hanks Patrick, 2013, Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haspelmath Martin, 2010, “Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies”, Language 86 (3), 663-687.

Hohenhaus Peter, 2005, “Lexicalization and institutionalization”, in Štekauer Pavol & Lieber Rochelle (Eds.), Handbook of Word-Formation, Dordrecht: Springer, 353-374.

Huddleston Rodney & Pullum Geoffrey K. (Eds.), 2002, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Hudson Richard, 2007, “Word grammar”, in Geeraerts Dirk & Cuyckens Hubert (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 509-539

Janda Laura A., 2011, “Metonymy in word-formation”, Cognitive Linguistics 22 (2), 359-392.

Jonasson Kerstin, 1994, Le nom propre. Constructions et interprétations, Louvain-la-Neuve : De Boeck Supérieur.

Katz Nancy, Baker Erica & Macnamara John, 1974, “What’s in a name? A study of how children learn common and proper names”, Child Development 45 (2), 469-473.

Klassen Kimberly, 2022, “Proper name theory and implications for second language reading”, Language Teaching 55 (2), 149-155.

Lipka Leonhard, 1977, “Lexikalisierung, Idiomatisierung und Hypostatisierung als Probleme einer synchronen Wortbildungslehre”, in Brekle Herbert & Kastovsky Dieter. (Eds.), Perspektiven der Wortbildungsforschung, Bonn: Bouvier, 155-163.

Lipka Leonhard, 1981, “Zur Lexikalisierung im Deutschen und Englischen”, in Lipka Leonhard & Günther Harmut (Eds.), Wortbildung, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 119-132.

Kleiber Georges, 1981, Problèmes de référence : descriptions définies et noms propres, Paris : Klincksieck.

Kleiber Georges, 1995, « Sur la définition des noms propres : une dizaine d’années après », in Noailly Michèle (Ed.), Nom propre et nomination, Actes du Colloque de Brest (21-24 avril 1994), Paris : Klincksieck, 11-36.

Kripke Saul, 1980, Naming and Necessity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laurent Nicolas, 2010, La part réelle du langage. Essai sur le nom propre et sur l’antonomase de nom commun, Doctoral thesis, Paris : Sorbonne Université.

Leroy Sarah, 2001, Entre identification et catégorisation, l’antonomase du nom propre en français, Doctoral Thesis, Montpellier : Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III.

Leroy Sarah, 2004, Le nom propre en français, Paris : Ophrys.

Lyons John, 1977, Semantics Vol. 1/2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marconi Diego, 1990, “Dictionaries and proper names”, History of Philosophy Quarterly 7 (1), 77-92.

Matthews Peter H., 1997, Concise Dictionary of Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matushansky Ora, 2008, “On the linguistic complexity of proper names”, Linguistics and Philosophy 31 (5), 573-627.

McMillan James B., 1980, “Infixing and interposing in English”, American Speech 55 (3), 163-183.

Mejri Salah, 2005, « Figement absolu ou relatif : la notion de degré de figement », Linx. Revue des linguistes de l’université Paris X Nanterre, 53 (December), 183-196.

Mignot Élise, 2017, La morphologie du nom en anglais : vers une sémantique des parties du discours, Habilitation Monograph, Paris : Sorbonne Université.

Mill John Stuart, 1960 [1843], A system of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive, London: Routledge.

Nyström Staffan, 2016, “Names and meaning” in Hough Carole (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 39-51.

Peirsman Yves & Geeraerts Dirk, 2006, “Metonymy as a prototypical category”, Cognitive Linguistics 17 (3), 269-316.

Pepper Steve, 2020, The Typology and Semantics of Binominal Lexemes: Noun-Noun Compounds and their Functional Equivalents, PhD Dissertation, Oslo, University of Oslo.

Philippe Manon, 2020, Le nominal propre. Étude du nom propre en anglais, Doctoral Thesis, Paris : Sorbonne Université.

Pic Elsa & Furmaniak Grégory, 2010, « Grammaire et Degré de Spécialisation », ASp 58, 39-55.

Rey-Debove Josette, 1978, Le métalangage, Paris : Armand Colin.

Rey-Debove Josette, 1995, « Nom propre, lexique et dictionnaire de langue », in Noailly Michèle (Ed.), Nom propre et nomination, Actes du Colloque de Brest (21-24 avril 1994), Paris : Klincksieck, 107‑122.

Rey-Debove Josette, 2012 [1971], Étude linguistique et sémiotique des dictionnaires français contemporains, Berlin : De Gruyter.

Russell Bertrand, 1905, “On denoting”, Mind 14 (56), 479-493.

Siblot Paul, 1987, « De la signifiance du nom propre », Cahiers de Praxématique 8, 97-114.

Sørensen Holger Steen, 1958, Word-Classes in Modern English with Special Reference to Proper Names – with an Introductory Theory of Grammar, Meaning and Reference, Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad Publish.

Stevenson Angus & Waite Maurice (Eds.), 2011, Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Strawson Peter F., 1950, “On referring”, Mind 59 (235), 320-344.

Taylor John R., 2010, “Cognitive linguistics and autonomous linguistics”, in Geeraerts Dirk & Cuyckens Hubert (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 566-588.

Van Langendonck Willy, 2007, Theory and Typology of Proper Names, Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Van Langendonck Willy & Van de Velde Mark, 2016, “Names and grammar”, in Hough Carole (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 17-38.

Vaxelaire Jean-Louis, 2001, Pour une lexicologie du nom propre, Doctoral Thesis, Paris : Université Paris-Diderot.

Vaxelaire Jean-Louis, 2009, « Lexicologie du nom propre et onomastique », Nouvelle Revue d’Onomastique 51 (1), 301-315.

Vendler Zeno, 1967, Linguistics in Philosophy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Top of page


1 JRC Names is a cross-language dataset compiling named entities, i.e., expressions used to refer to individuals that need to be singled out in context. For people, places and organizations, named entities are virtually reduced to proper names, but various modifiers or key terms like titles, occupation names or places / nationalities are used to retrieve names as they frequently cooccur. The JRC Names dataset was started in 2004, made available to the public in 2011 and has been enriched since. Of all the languages, English has the highest precision rate (96,83%) (Ehrmann, Jacquet & Steinberger [2016: 4]).

Top of page


Electronic reference

Élise Mignot and Manon Philippe, Introduction: Proper names and the lexicon – an expositionLexis [Online], 20 | 2022, Online since 28 December 2022, connection on 01 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page



Creative Commons - Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International - CC BY-SA 4.0

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search