Onomastic terminology

Go to the bottom of this page for the ICOS lists of key terms in onomastics (currently available in English, French, German, and other languages).

Terminology in onomastics is a complex and difficult matter which the Terminology Group of ICOS is at present trying to resolve. It has completed its work and will report here shortly. Since many of the relevant technical terms used internationally are of Greek origin, beginners in onomastics without knowledge of Greek are sometimes puzzled by the categories we use, so we include here some frequently-met terms (in their English forms) without prejudice as to what the Terminology Group will eventually recommend. Name in the list below should be taken specifically as proper name.

  • anthroponym: name of a human being
  • astronym: name of a star (or more loosely of a constellation or other heavenly body)
  • charactonym: (irregular; sometimes used for) name of a (literary) character
  • chrematonym: name of a politico-economic or commercial or cultural institution or thing; a catch-all category
  • endonym: the locally used name, esp. for a place (contrast exonym)
  • ergonym: sometimes used for the name of an institution or commercial firm
  • ethnonym: name of a people or tribe
  • exonym: name used by speakers of other languages instead of a native name, e.g. Ger. Pressburg for Bratislava
  • hodonym: name of a street or road
  • hydronym: name of a river, lake or other body of water
  • hypocoristic: a colloquial, usually unofficial, name of an entity; a pet-name or “nickname”
  • metronym: name of a human being making reference to that person’s mother
  • oikonym or (latinized) oeconym: name of a house or other building
  • oronym: name of a hill, mountain or mountain-range
  • patronym: name of a human being making reference to that person’s father
  • teknonym: name of a human being making reference to that person’s child
  • theonym: name of a god or of God
  • toponym: name of a place, sometimes in a broad sense, sometimes used in a restricted sense of inhabited places
  • zoonym: name of an animal

In the most precise terminology, sets of such names are called by a term formed by adding a -y to the element -onym (as in Yoruba anthroponymy, Czech toponymy), and the study of such sets is called, slightly confusingly, by a name with -onomastics replacing -onym (hydronomastics `the study of river-names, etc.’). But such pairs of words as toponymy and toponomastics may be found in use as loose equivalents for the discipline-names (especially in English).

Whatever you do, avoid the common error of spelling the words in -onymy with **-onomy. Astronymy is not the same as astronomy.

Note again that, within the discipline of onomastics, -onym(y) in these terms relates to proper names only. Ideally, dendronymy would be the study of proper names of individual trees, like The Del Norte Titan, the gigantic Californian redwood discovered in June 1998 in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California, USA, but, outside onomastics, terms such as zoonym `animal-name’ and phytonym `plant-name’ are occasionally found in use for the classificatory (“scientific”) names for natural kinds, like Bellis perennis, the daisy, or even Sequoia sempervirens, the Californian redwood. To an onomastician, such terms are taxonyms `classificatory names’, not proper names.

The advantage of having international terms such as these is that they can be standardized across different languages with minimal adjustment. But in some languages (certainly in non-technical writing), terms made up of native elements are preferred to international terminology: for instance nom de lieu, enw lle, ortnamn, paikannimi, Ortsname, plaatsnaam, helynév, place-name, nombre de lugar, nama tempat, pleknaam, ainm-àite, mistni jmeno, etc., all of which mean `place-name’, i.e. `toponym’. The problem which has stimulated the current ICOS project is that the international terms are not all used in precisely the same way in all languages or by linguists of all traditions.

See also the glossary of place-naming terminology produced for the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) by Professor Naftali Kadmon, which is available in a revised multilingual Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish edition, as well as a separate edition in Korean.

ICOS Lists of Key Onomastic Terms:

Other languages: