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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming

Reviewer: Peter Backhaus
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming
Book Author: Carole Hough
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.118

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“The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming” (henceforth Handbook) is a 770 pages volume edited by Carole Hough, Professor of Onomastics at the University
of Glasgow. It is divided into seven parts, each covering a different aspect of onomastics. The Handbook opens with an introduction, in which Hough defines the study of names in terms of being “both an old and a young discipline” (1), explains the overall structure of the book, and briefly previews the individual contributions (Chapter 1).

Part I contains three chapters dedicated to onomastic theory. It starts with Willy van Langendonck and Mark van de Velde’s account of the semantic and pragmatic characteristics of names (Chapter 2). Staffan Nyström discusses (and refutes) the frequent claim that names do not have meaning but only reference (Chapter 3). In the chapter on Names and Discourse, Elwys de Stefani explores the pragmatic functioning of names in linguistic interaction and demonstrates how this aspect of onomastics can be empirically studied (Chapter 4).

Part II is dedicated to the topic of toponomastics, or place-name research. It opens with Simon Taylor’s overview of research methods, which also includes a sample entry that illustrates how to read a toponymic dictionary (Chapter 5). The following chapters lead us through the different types of toponyms and how they came about: Carole Hough deals with settlement names (Chapter 6), Svante Strandberg with river toponymics (Chapter 7), Peter Drummond with hill and mountain names (Chapter 8), Peder Gammeltoft with island names (Chapter 9), Julia Kuhn with names in rural settings (Chapter 10), and Bertie Neethling with street names (Chapter 11). Part II concludes with Stefan Brink’s chapter on the common practice of transferring place-names from one locality to another, and the various mechanisms behind such toponymic recycling (Chapter 12).

Part III covers the second main object of onomastic study, names of people. Edwin D. Lawson makes the start with a survey on naming practices worldwide, based on information from a cross-cultural sample of experts on the topic (Chapter 13). The following two chapters focus on first and family names, respectively. Katharina Leibring sketches the historical development of given names in Europe (Chapter 14), while Patrick Hanks and Harry Parkin explore the characteristics of surnames in the British Isles, complemented by a brief review of available literature on surnames in other countries (Chapter 15). Bynames, from medieval times (“John the carpenter”) to their present-day usage (“The Iron Lady”), are the topic of Eva Brylla’s chapter (Chapter 16). It is followed by Adrian Koopman’s overview of ethnonyms, or names for ethnic groups such as Asian, Bavarian, or Zulu (Chapter 17). Ellen S. Bramwell outlines the relevance of naming practices for the field of anthropology and calls for further synergies between the two disciplines (Chapter 18). Finally, George Redmonds demonstrates the usefulness of first and family names for the study of genealogy (Chapter 19).

Part IV deals with the relatively young study of names in literature.. After introducing some of the basic concepts from the philosophy of language, Grant W. Smith draws on Pierce’s three-tiered conception of the semiotic sign to exemplify how names in literature can evoke iconic, indexical and symbolic associations (Chapter 20). In a more hands-on article, Bertie Neethling analyzes the functioning of names in the lyrics of two pop songs (Chapter 21). Birgit Falck-Kjällquist gives an overview of the use of names in different literary genres, including prose, drama, and poetry (Chapter 22). One of the major methodological issues raised in her article is directly taken up in the next chapter, which is about corpus-based approaches to the study of names in literature. Karina van Dalen-Oskam describes the overall development of the field, with special focus on pioneering research projects in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Chapter 23). Part IV closes with Paul Cavill’s diachronic overview of onomastic practices in English literature, from Beowulf to Dickens (Chapter 24)

Covering the topic of socio-onomastics, Part V starts with Terhi Ainiala’s overview of the social meaning of person and place-names (Chapter 25). Emilia Aldrin examines the relationship between names and identity, subdivided into personal, social, and cultural identity (Chapter 26). Next, Guy Puzey introduces the field of linguistic landscape, the study of language on signs, and demonstrates its potential for onomastic research (Chapter 27). Largely based on her PhD project in Australia, Laura Kostanski looks at the novel concept of toponymic attachment, defined as “a positive or negative association individuals and groups make with real or imagined toponyms” (412) (Chapter 28). Irma Taavitsainen and Andreas H. Jucker deal with names as forms of address. They identify different types and combinations of address terms in English and show how their use has changed through the ages (Chapter 29). In the next chapter, Katarzyna Aleksiejuk approaches the complex topic of pseudonyms, their classification, and how they are used in language and literature (Chapter 30). The final contribution to socio-onomastics is on commercial names, explored by Paula Sjöblom with respect to both linguistic form and function (Chapter 31).

PART VI is a collection of articles that explore the relationship of onomastics with other disciplines. Richard Jones critically reflects on what place-names can and cannot do in the study of archaeology (Chapter 32). From the point of view of cognitive psychology, Serge Brédart discusses the problem of why personal names tend to be particularly vulnerable to retrieval difficulties (Chapter 33). The following three chapters are thematically related in their focus on toponyms: Margaret Scott on names and dialectology (Chapter 34), Peder Gammeltoft on names and geography (Chapter 35), and Gillian Fellows-Jensen on names and history (Chapter 36). Toponyms are also in the center of the contributions by Richard Coates, who looks at evolution and change of names from the perspective of historical linguistics (Chapter 37), and by Berit Sandnes, who shows the potential of place-names for studying language contact phenomena (Chapter 38). Entirely different ground is covered by Andreas Teutsch, who provides an illustrative overview on legal issues in name-giving, with special focus on first and family names (Chapter 39). Alison Grant emphasizes the (not yet entirely exhausted) potential of onomastic research in dictionary making (Chapter 40), before Kay Muhr concludes Part VI with a case study on religious place-names in Ireland (Chapter 41).

The final thematic section, Part VII, contains six contributions on “other types of names” (603): aircraft names, by Guy Puzey (Chapter 42), animal names, by Katharina Leibring (Chapter 43), astronomical names, by Marc Alexander (Chapter 44), names of dwellings, by Adrian Koopman (Chapter 45), locomotive and train names, by Richard Coates (Chapter 46), and ship names, by Malcolm Jones (Chapter 47).


The Handbook provides an expansive and most welcome introduction to the science of names and name-giving. The overall structure of the book, from core areas to more peripheral topics, is logical and easy to follow. Consecutive numbering of the 46 chapters, a design feature common to all of the volumes in the _Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics_ series, provides additional cohesion between the chapters and allows for easy cross-referencing.

With an approximate average length of 15 pages, most of the contributions provide concise and easily accessible introductions to the topics covered. Many of the chapters have been written by well-known experts in the field, but there are also contributions by younger researchers. As a matter of fact, some chapters focus more on theoretical issues, while others are dedicated to hands-on empirical research, including research methods. Taken together, this strikes a very good balance between research theory and practice.

There is some necessary thematic overlap, particularly in Part VI, where many of the chapters relate to contents from other parts of the book. For instance, Coates’ chapter on Names and Historical Linguistics deals with issues taken up in the chapters on archaeology (Chapter 32), dialect (Chapter 34), and cognitive psychology (Chapter 33), which, unfortunately, remains unacknowledged in the text. In general, a little more cross-referencing would have been in order, particularly given the fact that many people might not read the Handbook from end to end.

One strong point of the book is that it devotes so much space to the comparatively novel fields of literary onomastics and socio-onomastics. In addition, I enjoyed very much some of the later chapters on topics outside of the onomastic core areas, for instance Bertie Neethling’s case study on names in pop song lyrics, Brédart’s chapter on names and cognitive psychology (Chapter 33), Teutsch’s overview on the legal aspects of naming (Chapter 39), and Malcolm Jones’ survey of ship names (Chapter 47).

Perhaps inevitably, the Handbook has a relatively pronounced geographical focus on western and north-western European countries, with the British Isles in central position. This is reflected by a larger number of articles that are confined to research from Britain (e.g., Chapters 6, 19, 34, 36, 40, 46). On the other hand, there are also chapters explicitly dealing with non-European countries, including Neethling’s insightful study on street (re)naming practices in South Africa (Chapter 11), and two quite impressive overviews of personal naming systems worldwide (Chapters 13 and 15).

The references are summarized at the end of the book, amounting to an impressive list of almost 100 pages. While there are some advantages to this format, including saving space and having all references available “at one look,” it might have been more reader-friendly to provide separate bibliographies for each chapter. However, as this appears to be the standard format for handbooks in this series, it is beyond the responsibility of the editor.

The Handbook has been carefully edited, with only a handful of minor typos. A subject and a language index make it easily accessible also for the quick reader (though I would definitely recommend allowing for some time when picking it up).

The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming is likely to become one of the standard works of reference and, in fact, a must-have for everyone interested in the science of names and naming. It works both as a tool for individual researchers and as additional reading material in classes on onomastics and related fields.
Peter Backhaus is Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature, Waseda University, Tokyo. His main research interests are sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and writing and orthography. He is recently preparing a project on the use of names in contemporary American literature.