The Magic of a Proper Name

Arguing with the logicians who declare that proper names have no meaning, Jespersen (Philosopy of Grammar, 1924) challenges them to explain what happens when a proper name becomes a common name, that is, in their view: “a sequence of sounds with no meaning at all suddenly from non-connotative becomes connotative, and that this new full meaning is at once accepted by the whole speaking community.”

For example, we might refer to someone as Judas, Midas, or Gollum.

What has happened, says Jespersen, “is simply this: out of the complex of qualities characteristic of the bearer of the name concerned (connoted by the name) one quality is selected as the best known, and used to characterize some other being of thing possessed of the same quality.” (67)

Jespersen’s point is that (contra J.S. Mill) a proper name is connotative, that is, has meaning. I take it that Tolkien accepted his point but queried his exposition.

The “whole speaking community” includes non-Christians, who may not know the story of Judas, many who do not know the story of Midas, and even a few (who live under stones or are imprisoned in factory-machines) who do not know Gollum. The idea of a new linguistic usage of a proper name “at once accepted by the whole speaking community” is preposterous.


The Hobbit analyses disagreement over meaning, but in the case of an adjective rather than a proper name. Gloin speaking:

In fact, if it bad not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer-than a burglar!”

Taking the queer mark on the door left by Gandalf to mean burglar, the dwarf denies that the hobbit is a credible burglar.

Overhearing the dwarf, Bilbo puts on his dignity, signs up for the adventure, but never reads the sign (already knocked off) his door. Bilbo has elected to be who Gandalf says he is (which for the job at hand does indeed mean burglar, although this might not be precisely what the wizard meant when he made his sign). But neither he nor those who hear the story (for the first time) know what a hobbit burglar means, and the dwarves – who have an idea – declare the suggestion incredible.

And they are right. By the end of his story Bilbo declares that he has never felt like a burglar; and the Elfking, fully aware of the hobbit’s burglarious activities in his own halls, names Bilbo Baggins an Elf-friend – no doubt coming close to naming the ‘queer quality’ that Gandalf discerned when, at the beginning of the story, he looked long at Bilbo with his wizard’s eye.

By telling a story, Tolkien reveals the subtleties and ever-changing nature of language as she is spoken in reality (be it Mirkwood or our own halls), which Jespersen indeed points to yet constantly overrides with his analysis (and such clumsy ideas as an immediate and universal acceptance of a linguistic innovation).

The Hobbit may be read as an account of how Bilbo Baggins became a hobbit burglar; but it does not pin the name burglar on Bilbo Baggins as an innate attribute. Bilbo steps into the role and claims the title when need arises (from Gollum’s cave through the Elfking’s dungeons to meeting Smaug and bartering the Arkenstone), but the attribute is not his identity, it does not precisely capture who he is.

Jespersen is right to suggest that stringing adjectival names of the attributes of a person together can never be exhaustive,that however many qualities we name we will be left with a gap, an inexpressable x, the quality of a person which must always elude us.

Only his name, Bilbo Baggins, means the hobbit whose proper name is Bilbo Baggins. As Gandalf says:

I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!

Jespersen perhaps obfuscates the social side of what happens when a proper name becomes a common name because he does not wish to analyse the magic in the ideal of connotation he has imagined a proper name to be. For there is a magic in these proper names, just as there is a magic in your own name, and mine.

J.R.R. Tolkien shows us that this true word magic does not concern hidden names of a prelapsarian Adamic language but the names that we give to one another. He further shows how this magic is made by – and so may be found in – the stories we speak and hear.

2 thoughts on “The Magic of a Proper Name

  1. Sue Bridgwater

    I’ve never yet felt the urge to say to someone ‘Oh, don’t be such a Baggins!’ Or ‘Don’t think you can Saruman me with your fancy talk!’ However, neither is impossible. But how long do such generalisations last – does anyone these days refer to ‘a quisling’ or know what it means or from whom it was named?

  2. simon Post author

    Well, I know what a quisling is – but I am oldish. A BBC news article a year or so back went viral after a mistake that referred to Russia as Mordor. I wrote a post at the time of the US elections identifying the two candidates as Morgoth and Sauron.

    Some names endure. Arthur is remembered but his contemporary Ingeld is forgotten. Tolkien, I think, would answer your question by saying that once someone is dropped in the Cauldron of Story it depends on the stories dished out of it how long the names are remembered. There is more to it, but that is a start…

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