Person, place, thing…

May 22, 2012 by

Many school grammar books definite a “noun” as a category that denotes “a person, place or thing”. While many objections can be raised to such a definition, it provides a useful three-way distinction of nouns into proper names, toponyms, and common nouns. However, very often nouns migrate from one category into another. This post will consider a few examples of such conversions.

Take, for instance, the noun macintosh denoting a type of outerwear, a waterproof outer coat. This common noun goes back to 1836, when it was created out of a proper name of Charles Macintosh (1766-1843), who invented a waterproofing process. Mr. Machintosh received a patent for the “machintoshing” process on June 17, 1823.

Or consider the noun cardigan. Now denoting a type of clothing, this common noun derives from a title, Lord Cardigan. The conversion happened in 1868, according to Online Etymological Dictionary, from the title of James Thomas Brudenell (1797-1868), 7th Earl of Cardigan. He was an English general, distinguished in the Crimean War, who set the style, in one account supposedly wearing such a jacket while leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854.The toponym of the Crimean locale of Balaclava was also converted into a common noun denoting another type of clothing/headgear.

Other common nouns that derive from the name of the “thing’s” inventor include diesel,which was named in 1894 after Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), the German mechanical engineer who designed this type of engine, and braille, named in 1853 after Louis Braille (1809-1852), French musician and teacher, blind from age 3, who devised it around 1830.

Sometimes proper names become common nouns not to denote things invented or popularized by a certain person, but to designate psychological or social types of people: for example, an Einstein is a very smart person and a Judas is a traitor. Other such examples include a Casanova, a Matahari, a doubting Thomas, a Romeo, and a Scrooge.

Proper names can also become toponyms: for example, Stanford (the university and the town) is named after Leland Stanford (Jr.), but the surname Stanford originally came from a toponym. Other toponyms derived from proper names include Washington and Gorky (former name of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city, named after the writer Maxim Gorky).

And as mentioned above, toponyms can be converted into common nouns: limousine, cognac, and camembert all come from French toponyms. Another interesting toponym-to-common-noun example is jeans, which comes from Genoa, the city in northern Italy. In contrast, denim comes from a French phrase that literally means ‘from Nîmes’, a town in southern France.

Such cross-category conversions between toponyms, proper names, and common nouns are found not only in English but in other languages as well. For example, in Japanese the Chinese city of Nanking is associated not only with bedbugs (Nankin-mushi) but also with peanuts (Nankin-mame), padlocks (Nankin-jo), coarse long-grain rice (Nankin-mai), hemp sacks (Nankin-bukuro) and mixed cotton-silk fabrics (Nankin-jusu), to name but a few examples. A quick look around the internet suggests that ‘Nankin’ tended to be used back in the Edo era as a prefix for various things that came from abroad, especially if they were small and exotic, or rough and cheap. Most of these items did not actually come to Japan from the city of Nanking, though some first arrived via trade with China. It just seems to have become the representative exotic foreign place where stuff came from.



[Thanks to Kären Wigen for help with the Japanese examples]

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