The use of the indefinite article with a proper name occurs often in business or organizational speech-contexts:

We're lucky to have a Bill Jones to get the job done.

The article plus proper noun is used differently there than it is in narrative contexts, where it is typical to find an adjective as well:

A young Bill Jones would soon make his debut at Carnegie Hall.

There is an inherent contradiction in the former combination: it suggests individuality and fungibility simultaneously. It is subtly demeaning. The locution praises Jones while reminding him and everyone in earshot that employees can be replaced, although this message might not be at the conscious level.

I recall reading that, in a language whose grammatical genders included animate and inanimate, it was possible to insult someone by affixing the inanimate gender marker to an adjective applied to the person. Do you think this use of the indefinite article with a proper noun functions in a similar way?

  • I don't think I've ever come across examples like your first one. – Colin Fine Dec 15 '14 at 14:25
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    I've heard it on more than one occasion, where its praise element conveyed an idea that might be paraphrased "a person of very high caliber like Bill Jones". – TRomano Dec 15 '14 at 14:31
  • Good question. I was thinking about this myself the other day. – Robusto Dec 15 '14 at 14:33
  • Then there's Margaret Thatcher's well-known quote "Everyone needs a Willie", referring to her deputy William Whitelaw as a trusted ally, but also (double entendre) mocking those who had difficulty accepting a female prime minister. – DavidR Dec 15 '14 at 21:40
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    I think the common feature of both examples is not that people are fungible, but that a specific person can be an archetype. – Barmar Dec 16 '14 at 19:40

There are a number of occasions when an indefinite article is used with a proper noun:

(1) It can indicate that the speaker does not know this person. 'There's a Bill Jones on the line' is shorthand for 'There's a person called Bill Jones on the line'. This does not seem to apply to either example above.

(2) It can be used to distinguish between different versions of the same person: 'This is a picture of a young Bill Jones and this is one of an older and more mature Bill Jones.' This seems to be a possible interpretation of the second example.

(3) It can be used to refer to qualities associated with the original person bearing that name, as in Shylock's 'A Daniel come to judgement, yea a Daniel! O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!' I think this is relevant to the first example. 'Daniel' stands for 'wise young judge'. Presumably 'Bill Jones' stands for 'efficient person'. The difference is that this person IS Bill Jones, but could be another person with the same quality.

I don't associate its use in (2) and (3) with being insulting, but can be so for (1).


I recall reading that, in a language whose grammatical genders included animate and inanimate, it was possible to insult someone by affixing the inanimate gender marker to an adjective applied to the person.

I have no experience with any such language (Wikipedia says they're to be found in the Anatolian group). However, if neuter is what you have in mind, the tradition is alive and well in English:

BILLY JONES. Who took my pen? Hey!
ONE OF THE COWORKERS [looking up, astonished]. Hey, guys. It can talk!

In my less than humble opinion, the two are unrelated.

I agree with you that the idea of having a Billy Jones to save the day can be a bit demeaning to Billy, depending on the context. As in:

We're fortunate to have a moron who has no life to fix problems for us.

But for the most part I think the connotations are strictly neutral, suggesting that the speaker referring to a third party doesn't know them from Adam:

There's a Billy Jones here to see you, sir.


he was unfortunately called out by a Billy Jones on business from Porlock

It can only be demeaning if the speaker wants to make it so:

There's a [disdainfully] Billy Jones [in a normal tone of voice] here to see you, sir.

The other type of expression you adduce, found mostly in narratives of yore, has always struck me as a bit phony and contrived, almost Victorian:

A very sleepy Billy Jones opened the door for us.
An inspired-looking Billy Jones conducted the concert version of Tosca at Carnegie Hall the other night.
An elated Billy Jones slipped into her bed wearing nothing but his pajama top and baldric.

... But it has nothing whatever to do with inanimacy (or whatever the official Anatolian term is).

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