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A name is a label for a noun, 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 names".

The use of personal names is not unique to humans. Dolphins also use symbolic names, as has been shown by recent research.[1] 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.

Care must be taken in translation, for there are ways that one language may prefer one type of name over another. 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, and English speakers often refer to Shakespeare as "The Bard", recognizing him as a paragon writer of the language. Finally, claims to preference or authority can be refuted: the British did not refer to Louis-Napoleon as Napoleon III during his rule.

For lessons on the topic of Names, follow this link.


The word "name" comes from Old English (OE) nama; akin to Old High German (OHG) namo, Latin nomen, and Greek ὄνομα (onoma), possibly from the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE): *nomn-.[2]

In mythology

In multiple and different world mythologies and folklore, knowing the name of a thing is considered to have power over a thing (to varying degrees).

In Arthurian mythology, part of the code of honor and chivalry practiced by knights is that a knight who loses a duel must reveal his name to the victor. It is considered a breach of honor or decorum to reveal one's name before combat. A frequent topos is that a defeated knight will, after revealing his name, ask the victor what his name is: if the victor turns out to actually be a much more strong and famous knight (e.g. one of Arthur's knights) the loser actually saves face, because he was beaten by a knight obviously held to already be stronger than him, and thus there is no shame in defeat. However, if a strong and powerful knight is defeated, and the victor turns out to be a relatively unknown and not particularly strong knight, it is a grave humiliation. As a result of this pattern, it is considered extremely odd within the rules of Arthurian society when a knight refuses to take off his helmet or reveal his identity, even after he has won a duel. Sometimes this results from the victorious knight simply not knowing his own name, as was the case with Lancelot and Percival during their early careers; this inability to reveal their own name even in victory led many to incorrectly assume they were trying to intentionally insult the vanquished. A major exception to this rule is Sir Gawain: Gawain considers himself to be the greatest of his uncle Arthur's knights, and he feels that his honor is so great that he does not need to hide from revealing it. Thus at the opening of any duel Gawain will simply openly announce "I am Gawain", as it will not diminish his honor to reveal it.

In religious thought

In the ancient world, particularly in the ancient near-east (Israel, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia) names were thought to be extremely powerful and to act, in some ways, as a separate manifestation of a person or deity.[3] This viewpoint is responsible both for the reluctance to use the proper name of God in Hebrew writing or speech, as well as the common understanding in ancient magic that magical rituals had to be carried out "in [someone's] name". By invoking a god or spirit by name, one was thought to be able to summon that spirit's power for some kind of miracle or magic (see Luke 9:49, in which the disciples claim to have seen a man driving out demons using the name of Jesus.) This understanding passed into later religious tradition, for example the stipulation in Catholic exorcism that the demon cannot be expelled until the exorcist has forced it to give up its name, at which point the name may be used in a stern command which will drive the demon away.

Biblical names

In the Old Testament, the names of individuals are meaningful; for example, Adam is named after the "earth" (Adam) from which he was created. (Genesis 2) A change of name indicates a change of status. For example, the patriarch Abram and his wife Sarai are renamed "Abraham" and "Sarah" when they are told they will be the father and mother of many nations (Genesis 17:4, 17:15). Simon was renamed Peter when he was given the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 16).

Throughout the Bible, characters are given names at birth that reflect something of significance or describe the course of their lives. For example: Solomon meant peace, and the king with that name was the first whose reign was without warfare. Likewise, Joseph named his firstborn son Manasseh (Hebrew: "causing to forget") as a gesture of forgiveness to his brothers for selling him into slavery.

Biblical Jewish people did not have surnames which were passed from generation to generation. However, they were typically known as the child of their father. For example: דוד בן ישי (David ben Yishay) meaning, David, son of Jesse. In a sense, they used their fathers' first names as their own last names, a majority practice in the Muslim world today. Similary to Jewish names, the "ben" is in place by "bin" or "ibn" for males, "binte", "binti" or "ibnu" for females to Muslims. Sometimes, names include "Al-", "Ali-", "-allah", "-lah/-llah" or "-ullah" as it means "a servant to god" or "god's servant". They would sometimes indicate the place they or their child live in.

Talmudic attitudes

The Babylonian Talmud maintains that names exert a mystical influence over their bearers, and a change of name is one of four actions that can avert an evil heavenly decree, that would lead to punishment after one's death. Rabbinical commentators differ as to whether the name's influence is metaphysical, connecting a person to their soul, or bio-socio-psychological, where the connection affects his personality, appearance and social capacities. The Talmud also states that all those who descend to Gehenna will rise in the time of Messiah. However, there are three exceptions, one of which is he who calls another by a derisive nickname.

Technical names for names


Literary names

In fiction, proper names of people or places are often unique to the work in which they appear. Although, within the work of fiction proper, the name may nontheless be said to have a certain ethnic origin, the name itself may not actually exist. For example, the character of Ororo Munro (Storm of the X-Men franchise) is of African descent. Her first name, however is not an authentic African name. Names may also be created to either represent ethnic neutrality or corruption of a name with the passage of time. This is a common technique used by science fiction and fantasy writers who may also employ alternate spellings of existing names. Also, many science fiction operates on the premise that racial and ethnic boundaries will cease to exist in the future thus producing names that appear to be mixes of different ethnic sources. Yoshiyuki Tomino (creator of the anime Mobile Suit Gundam) is notable for creating character names that are unusual, exotic, and sometimes silly sounding. Examples include Char Aznable (which is actually based on a real person), Bright Noa, Quess Paraya, and Marvel Frozen. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has also created names which may or may not be variants or corruptions of existing or ancient names. Examples include Dors Venabili, R. Daneel Olivaw, and Giskard Reventlov. The Star Wars and Dune franchises contains many character names that juggle existing names with created ones; Leia Organa, Ben Kenobi, Paul Atreides, Vladimir Harkonnen.


  1. "Dolphins Name Themselves With Whistles, Study Says". National Geographic News. May 8, 2006.
  2. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2008-09-20.; The asterisk before a word indicates that it is a hypothetical construction, not an attested form.
  3. "Egyptian Religion", E.A Wallis Budge", Arkana 1987 edition, ISBN 0-14-019017-1

Further reading

External links

My Name in Arabic Names in Arabic Calligraphy for Free Names in Tibetan Culture - Namgyal Monastery, Institute of Buddhist Studies What is a Name? The entomology of first names