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A name (etymology: from Old English nama; akin to [[Old High Germannamo, Latin nomen, nominis, and Greek όνομα, ultimately from proto-Indo-European language *nomn- [1]) is a label for a human or animal, thing, place, product (as in a brand name) and even an idea or concept, normally used to distinguish one from another. Names can identify a class or category of things, or a single thing, either uniquely, or within a given context. A personal name identifies a specific unique and identifiable individual person. The name of a specific entity is sometimes called a proper name (although that term has a philosophical meaning also) and is a proper noun. Other nouns are sometimes, more loosely, called names; an older term for them, now obsolete, is "general name".

The use of personal names is not unique to humans. Dolphins also use symbolic names, as has been shown by recent research.[2] Individual dolphins have individual whistles, to which they will respond even when there is no other information to clarify which dolphin is being referred to.

Naming is the process of assigning a particular word or phrase to a particular object or property. This can be quite deliberate or a natural process that occurs in the flow of life as some phenomenon comes to the attention of the users of a language. Many new words or phrases come into existence during translation as attempts are made to express concepts from one language in another.

Either as a part of the naming process, or later as usage is observed and studied by lexicographers, the word can be defined by a description of the pattern to which it refers.

Besides their grammatical function, names can have additional or pure honorary and memorial values. For example, the posthumous name's primary function is commemorative.

Care must be taken in translation, for there are ways that one language may prefer one type of name over another. For example, there are "merchants' and sailors' terms" for their own convenience: the spellings Leghorn, Genoa, and Rome do not appear on Italian maps. Also, a feudal naming habit is used sometimes in other languages: the French often refer to Aristotle as "le Stagirite" from one spelling of his place of birth. Finally, claims to preference or authority can be refuted: the British did not refer to Louis-Napoleon as Napoleon III during his rule.

Philosophical accounts of names


Proper names function the same way as common nouns do in many natural languages. Philosophers have thus often treated the two as similar in meaning. In the late nineteenth century, Frege argued that certain puzzling features of both names and nouns could be resolved if two aspects of the meanings of names and nouns could be recognized, sense and reference:

  • A sense, which is equivalent to some sort of description (a dog is a 'domestic canine animal')
  • A referent, the thing or things that meet that description (all dogs in the world)

Proper names are in this sense, special cases of nouns with only one referent, the person themselves.


Main article: Theory of descriptions

Bertrand Russell believed that true names must never be equivalent to a description, but conceded that most of the apparent "names" in English really were equivalent to descriptions, specifically to definite descriptions. In this position, there are two different functions nouns can serve:

  • Describing (and perhaps indirectly referring)
  • Referring (directly, without description)

Russell's position is that that most or all English names really do the former. This position came to be known as Descriptivism with respect to singular terms, and was prominent through much of twentieth-century analytic philosophy.


In 1970 Saul Kripke gave a series of lectures arguing against Descriptivism, and holding, among other things, that names are rigid designators, expressions that refer to objects independently of any properties those objects have. However, often descriptions are used to pick out references, to explain to others which objects are being discussed by reference to an agreed-upon property. According to this theory, it does not follow that any of the agreed-upon properties constitute the meaning of the name.

Kripke's work led to the development of various versions of the Causal theory of reference, which in various forms claims that our words mean what they do, not because of associated descriptions, but because of the causal history of the acquisition of that name in a vocabulary.

Naming convention

A naming convention is an attempt to systematize names in a field so they unambiguously convey similar information in a similar manner.

Different cultures have differing naming conventions. In each individual case, if in any doubt, it is advisable to:

  • Ask for people's first names
  • Check with a person how he or she wishes to be addressed
  • Check that a person's full name has been given
  • Ask which name is the personal name; which name (if any) is the family name; and which name is used as a surname
  • Check how a person's name should be pronounced; and if appropriate, how it should be spelt.

Naming conventions are useful in many aspects of everyday life, enabling the casual user to understand larger structures.

Street names within a city may follow a naming convention; some examples include:

  • In Manhattan, roads that go across the island (East-West) are called "Streets", while those that run the length of the island (North-South) are called "Avenues". Manhattan streets and avenues are numbered, with "1st Street" being near the southern end of the island, and "219th Street" being near the northern end, while "1st Avenue" is near the eastern edge of the island and "12th Avenue" near the western edge.

Large corporate, university, or government campuses may follow a naming convention for rooms within the buildings to help orient tenants and visitors.

Parents may follow a naming convention when selecting names for their children. Some have chosen alphabetical names by birth order. In some East Asian cultures, it is common for one syllable in a two syllable given name to be a generation name which is the same for immediate siblings. In many cultures it is common for the son to be named after the father. In other cultures, the name may include the place of residence. Roman naming convention denotes social rank.

Products may follow a naming convention. Automobiles typically have a binomial name, a "make" (manufacturer) and a "model", in addition to a model year, such as a 2007 Chevrolet Corvette. Sometimes there is a name for the car's "decoration level" or "trim line" as well: e.g., Cadillac Escalade EXT Platinum, after the precious metal. Computers often have increasing numbers in their names to signify the next generation.

Courses at schools typically follow a naming convention: an abbreviation for the subject area and then a number ordered by increasing level of difficulty.

Many numbers (e.g. bank accounts, government IDs, credit cards, etc) are not random but have an internal structure and convention. Virtually all organizations that assign names or numbers will follow some convention in generating these identifiers. Airline flight numbers, Space shuttle flight numbers, even phone numbers all have an internal convention.

Brand names

Main article: Brand names

The process of developing a name for a brand or product is heavily influenced by marketing research and strategy to be appealing and marketable. The brand name is often a neologism or pseudoword.

See also


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary. URL accessed on 2007-09-21.
  2. includeonly>"Dolphins Name Themselves With Whistles, Study Says", National Geographic News, May 8, 2006.
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