Aristotle on the meaning of proper names

One perhaps conspicuous absence in any Dictionary entry is the ‘meaning’ of the name. Instead, we provide a linguistic etymology, identifying the root words or elements that were used in constructing the name. This is because, semantically, proper names do not function in the same way that ordinary nouns do. What, exactly, is the semantic function of proper names, and how this function develops and differs from ordinary nouns, is something that interests linguists and philosophers alike, and the answers are by no means clear. What is clear is that the semantic function of proper nouns does differ from that of common names, and this is clear by looking at how one and the same string of sounds is understood in different ways whether it is used as a name or a noun. We do not expect every Heather we meet to be green and bushy, nor every Thomas to be a twin, despite the linguistic etymologies of both these names, and even the current use of the word heather in English to refer to a green, bushy plant.

This fact — that the semantic origins of the elements do not carry over to the semantic meaning of the compound — is articulated at least as far back as Aristotle. In On Interpretation, Aristotle considers the case of the proper name Κάλλιππος, a crasis of Ancient Greek καλός ‘beautiful, fair’ and ἵππος ‘horse’. He points out that:

In fact, in ‘Κάλλιππος’, ‘ἵππος’ indicates nothing by itself, as it does in the phrase ‘καλός ἵππος’ [1].

Thus, “evidently what is indicated by ‘ἵππος’ does not contribute directly to the signification of the word ‘Κάλλιππος’; for, when someone does makes an assertion about ‘Κάλλιππος’, she only has a man — Κάλλιππος — in mind and nothing related to horses or fairness” [2].

For modern parents, the semantic meanings of the linguistic elements that contribute to a proper name are often an important factor in the choice of name — which is why every baby name book you pick up lists each name’s “meaning”. But this emphasis on the importance of the meanings of the linguistic roots of proper names is a relatively modern feature. The medieval parents of Hildefrid wouldn’t have chosen the name because it derives from Germanic elements meaning “battle” and “peace” (a nearly nonsensical combination!). Names were generally given to honor a saint or a relative, because they recombine elements of the parents’ name, because of local practices, rather than because of the semantic origins of the elements from which the name is constructed [3].


[1] Cited in Ana-María Mora-Márquez, The Thirteenth-Century Notion of Signification: The Discussions and Their Origin and Development, (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. 119.

[2] ibid.

[3] The rise of virtue names in the 16th C is a distinct and noteworthy exception to this general rule.

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