Words About Naming from Latin

By Mark Nichol

The Latin word nomen, meaning “name,” is the source of many words in English that pertain to names and naming. Here are the most common of those words and their definitions.

Nomen itself is the word for the family name of a Roman citizen, the second of the three names usually given. A praenomen (meaning “before name”) is a first name, and a cognomen (“with name”) is the third name. (The word can also generically mean “name” and can refer to an epithet or nickname.) An agnomen (“to name”) is an additional name or an epithet attached to a person’s name because of some achievement or honor.

The adjective nominal (“of a name”) means “in name only” or “approximate” or “very small in amount,” though it has a more specific sense in financial contexts related to loans and interest. The verb nominate means “designate” or “name,” while a denomination is a name for a class of things, though the word generally refers to the value of a particular amount of currency (for example, a quarter and a twenty-dollar bill are denominations) or to a religious group (for example, Baptists and Methodists are members of specific Christian denominations).

Noun, from Anglo-French and referring to a person, a place, or a thing, is directly descended from nomen; a pronoun (“for name”) is a word (such as it) used in place of a noun. Renown (“speak of name”), meaning “fame” or “respect,” was spelled renoun in Anglo-French; its adjectival form, sometimes misspelled reknowned (as if the root word is known) or incorrectly styled the same as the noun form, is renowned. A misnomer (“incorrect name”), meanwhile, is a name that is not appropriate or proper to identify something, and ignominious (“not name,” in the sense of not acquiring or retaining a good reputation) means “disgraceful” or “humiliating.”

Words pertaining to naming for scientific classification include nomenclature (“name assignment”), meaning “a system of naming” or “the act of naming” or referring to a name itself. Binomial (“two names”) is an adjective referring to a two-word name for a species (as homo sapiens); these two words are often paired as “binomial nomenclature” to refer to the system used to create such names. (Binomial also has the meaning in mathematics of “an expression of two numbers connected by a plus or minus sign.) There is also a set of terms such as “nomen dubium” (“dubious name”) referring to the status of specific scientific nomenclature, and variations on binomial include trinomial, polynomial, and multinomial.

Another word for classification that might mistakenly be assumed to derive from nomen is taxonomy (“arrangement method”; the second part of the word is the same suffix seen in economy and other words for systems), which originally applied to categorization of living things by their relationships but was later extended to general organization (as in the model of learning strategies known as Bloom’s taxonomy) and to the arrangement of data on a website.

Two other words unrelated to nomen that appear to have the same etymology include phenomenon (from a Greek word meaning “to appear”), meaning “something impressive or popular because of an unusual ability or quality” or “something unusual or difficult to explain or understand,” and anomaly (Greek, “not even” in the sense of being not the same), meaning “something unexpected or unusual.”

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