Useful but rare vocabulary

On ADS-L on the 27th, Victor Steinbok noted the rarity of the useful adjective mononymous (and nouns mononym and mononymy) — cf. homonymous, synonymous, antonymous, etc.  From Paul McFedries’s WordSpy entry (posted 7/18/98):

adj. Describes a person who uses only one name. [or the name itself — AMZ]
Example Citation: “The mononymous Cafu is a defender for Brazil, the world’s most stylish and self-absorbed collection of athletes, a team aptly described by one Brazilian newspaper as a ‘cauldron of vanities.’ ” —Steve Rushin, “Tour de France,” Sports Illustrated

For example, Socrates, Cher, Banksy, Pelé, Batman, to choose people from various walks of life.

The Rushin cite is the only one Victor found in dictionaries for the word. The alternative McFedries suggests, uninomial, seems not to be any more frequent than mononymous (with reference to personal names, that is; see below). Other alternatives are longer but less technical-sounding  (e.g., “a philosopher with a one-word name” instead of “a mononymous philosopher”).

For whatever reason, the technical vocabulary seems not to have caught on, even though it would sometimes be useful to have such a brief (mononymous!) term. But of course nothing obliges speakers to opt for brevity, against other considerations (like the naturalness of ordinary vocabulary).

(Another mononymous cite that Victor found:

About a week ago, a group of Tumblr users, led by Raven, a mononymous Chicago-based progressive activist, began to tweet taunts, insults, and other expressions of outrage at Ryking, whose selections of political material on the service earned him the status of “tag editor” on the blogging service. (link))

There are cultures in which mononymy is commonplace, or even normative. In such contexts, it’s not worth commenting on. But in the many cultures in which dinymous names — a personal name plus a family name, in one order or the other — are the norm, mononyms stand out. In British and American usage, trinymous names (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, etc.) also stand out if they are customarily given in full. So there are times when we want to talk about the number of words in expressions.

Finally, dinymous and trinymous seem to be even rarer than mononymous. Uninomial, binomial, and trinomial, on the other hand, are reasonably common, but not with reference to personal names; instead, they are used with reference to algebraic expressions and to taxonomic names in biology. In biological nomenclature, uninomials are used for names at or above the genus rank (the genus Canis). A specific name is binomial (the species of gray wolves Canis lupus), a subspecific name trinomial (the dingo Canis lupus dingo).

In both cases (algebra and biology), uninomial etc. are clearly technical terms, appropriate in their contexts; compare monosyllable, disyllable, trisyllable, discussions of phonology. For everyday purposes, things like the following (adapted from actual examples) are just fine, and a technical term would be just fancy overkill:

Name a band or singing group that goes by a one-word name.

What are good one-word names for a book?

What is the longest one-word name in the world?

I’m looking for movie with a one-word name; it starts with R, …

10 Responses to “Useful but rare vocabulary”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    Wikipedia, at least, has embraced the term.

  2. Rick Sprague Says:

    I’d expect that the popularity of monomymous is limited by its potential confusion with monotonous and (especially after words ending in /m/) anonymous. As for dinymous and trinymous, they sound too much like showofffy Latin words in -imus.

  3. Bob Richmond Says:

    Rashomon? Ratatouille? Rache?

    In Indonesia, even in public life people often have only one name, Sukarno being the best known of these. There are other Asian countries where people have more than one name.

    Among the Old Order Amish of Lancaster Co. PA, most people have one of only six surnames, and there are only about twenty first names in common use. When necessary, people will use such epithets as Eli Stolzfus the harness maker. (He is – if he’s still working – a master craftsman working in Intercourse PA – which the natives call “Ronks”, by the way.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      1. The question about movie names was an example sentence, not an actual query. Surely you knew that.

      2. As I said in the text, “There are cultures in which mononymy is commonplace, or even normative.” Indonesia has one such culture (maybe the most famous, because the country is so populous), but there are quite a few others.

      3. As cubeb points out below, Ronks and Intercourse are distinct places (and both are distinct from Paradise, which is near to both of them).

  4. cubeb Says:

    ?? Ronks and Intercourse are two different towns, five miles apart.

  5. Bob Richmond Says:

    Ronks is the old name of the township, and the Amish use it for the name of the town. The town of Intercourse was renamed by the “English” – maybe in the 1930s – and the Amish understandably find it offensive. The town was formerly named Crossed Keys.

  6. annaandersonwrites Says:

    Thank you, AZ. This was the exact word I needed today and I wanted you to know that I mightily appreciate you providing it.

  7. Link love: language (47) « Sentence first Says:

    […] Mononymy: when people use just one name. […]

  8. Words and how we use them « Notes from underground Says:

    […] Mononymy: when people use just one name. […]

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