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I recently stumbled upon this article and the first paragraph surprised me a bit. It says:

Nerima (練馬区 Nerima-ku) is a special ward in Tokyo, Japan. In English, it calls itself Nerima City.

That sounds very strange to me. How can a ward call itself?

I have three questions:

  1. Is "it calls itself" proper English?
  2. If it is, does it sound natural or more encyclopedic perhaps?
  3. Can you say "it calls itself" about anything that has a name, or are there some restrictions?
  • 3
    It is a little odd, but appropriate in a way if the intent is to imply that the ward's officials chose the English name, vs it having it imposed from the outside somehow. If that was not the intent, though, it would be more appropriate to reword it along the lines of what Alan Carmack suggests. (Note that a city or other political division can "call" itself something, just as a corporation might decide to "call" itself something.) – Hot Licks Apr 18 '16 at 22:07
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    If some local government body adopted an ordinance that defined how they would be styled in another language or alphabet (perhaps for the benefit of consistency across tourism boards, cultural attaches, and industrial development initiatives): how is "in X, it calls itself Y" not a succinct, correct statement? – user662852 Apr 19 '16 at 2:00
  • may be this should go to ell.stackexchange.com – user13267 Apr 19 '16 at 10:10
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    In French je m'appelle, tu t'appelle, and il (elle) s'appelle which literally translate as "I call myself, you call yourself, he (she, it) calls him (her, its) self" are a standard idiomatic way of saying "my (your, his, her, its) name is." Perhaps this passage was translated from a language with a similar idiom? – cobaltduck Apr 19 '16 at 13:26
  • Sounds like an inadvertent calque, likely from Japanese. By the way, it has been corrected on Wikipedia. – mustaccio Apr 19 '16 at 20:58
26

To say something "calls itself" something is an informal, fairly common subtle way to express scepticism, reservation, doubt or disdain about something; particularly, the validity of its name. It's similar to prefacing "self-styled" or "so-called".

If I was to say "In English, Nerima calls itself Nerima City" in conversation, I'd be implying that Nerima might not be justified in calling itself a city, and I'd be implying that I suspected some cynical motive (e.g. self-promotion).

From the context, I'm sure this is not what the authors of this formal, factual Wikipedia article intended, I'm sure it's an accident of translation. It's possible they might have been reflecting the unusual nature of referring to a ward of Tokyo as a city in its own right, but it would be unusual for Wikipedia to do so in such a way.


It's very easy to find scores of real-life examples of this usage that are clearly expressing skepticism or doubt. Since it's generally an informal and negative phraseology, most of these I examples I found through web searches were from dubious-looking forums or agenda-pushing sites, so forgive me for not linking to them... There were also a couple of published books using this phraseology in the first few pages of results, which I have linked to.

The tiny island-State, currently verging on poverty, calls itself 'great Britain.' It takes gall... [anti-Britain rant continues]

The organization MENSA, which calls itself “the high IQ society,” requires an IQ score of 130 or higher for membership... [goes on to ask if this is really a remarkable score]

Our first visit to the cafe which calls itself 'nailsworth's quietest cafe'!! [damning 1-star review of said cafe]

A group called NARAL, which calls itself a feminist organization... [goes on to attack this organisation]

Israel, which calls itself a Jewish state... [you don't need me to tell you where this one's going...]

...activities, and weaknesses of the group that calls itself the “Islamic State” [ book critically examining whether it does resemble a functioning state ]

For somewhere that calls itself “Great” Britain, you sure don't shout about it. Why are you such negative whiners here? [as a Brit I'll admit this is a fair question... but as a pedant I'll point out that the 'Great' was introduced to distinguish the largest of the British Isles variously from other neighbouring islands such as Ireland, or from Brittany in France ]

It's not exclusively used with a negative connotation, but since it commonly is, in cases where it isn't, that's usually made explicitly clear:

Yarmouth rightly insists on calling itself 'Great' and has done so for 800 years. This was originally to distinguish the town from 'Little Yarmouth' across the river [ book about the history of the English town Great Yarmouth ]

Even here, the phraseology communicates the fact that many people might question or dispute the greatness implied by the name "Great Yarmouth" (which is not an especially large or famous town).

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    +1 and special commendation for mentioning Great Yarmouth, where I once lived for 5 years! – WS2 Apr 19 '16 at 11:32
  • Interesting. I just noticed that someone has gone through and downvoted only those answers that contain actual links, examples of real usage, or references. That same person has not downvoted answers that are nothing more than someone stating their opinion. – user568458 Apr 19 '16 at 13:07
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    I have never managed to understand the psychology of down-voting. Sometimes it seems to happen for no discernible reason whatever. A few of us moan about down-voting with no accompanying explanation - which I think is downright rude. But it seems to make no difference to those who do it. Anyway I personally only apply down-votes in extremis, and, in the event, always express my reasons for doing so. – WS2 Apr 19 '16 at 14:30
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    I think it's Great Britain as opposed to to Little Britain, which is Brittany in France; see Etymonline. Some languages still have a single equivalent to both Britain and Brittany (Bretagne in French, Bretanha in Portuguese). – Jacinto Apr 19 '16 at 15:25
  • It's worth mentioning that (like pretty much all Tokyo wards), Nerima isn't geographically separated from the rest of Tokyo, it's just part of the enormous urban sprawl. It seems plausible from me that the author was expressing skepticism that Tokyo wards should be considered cities in their own right rather than simply parts of the much larger city of Tokyo. – Nathaniel Apr 20 '16 at 13:00
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It is grammatical, but it is not English as spoken by any kind of native English speaker. It sounds like a poor translation from a language like French, which tends to avoid passives (eg "is called") by either impersonals ("one calls it") or reflexives ("it calls itself").

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    It sounds a native English idiom to me. I've just been contacted by an outfit which calls itself "Brightly Coloured Ltd".I feel sure I've said things like that. It rather belongs in a while-having-a-drink-after-work register. – WS2 Apr 18 '16 at 23:21
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    To be clear, "calls itself" like in WS2's example is a casual, informal way to imply a little skepticism or reservation about something. I'd take from WS2's example that they are a little suspicious about this "Brightly Coloured Ltd" who unexpectedly contacted them. I'd guess the example in the question is a translation that overlooked this nuance. If I said "Nerima, which calls itself Nerima City in English", I'd be implying that Nerima might not really be grand enough to justify calling itself a city (which I don't think this article means to do) – user568458 Apr 19 '16 at 9:08
  • I agree with @user568458. Specifically saying that they call themself X, to my ear implies that nobody else calls them X, or that they are the only ones that call themself X. It brings to mind the peasants from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Peasant:"Who does he think he is?" Arthur:"I am your King!" Peasant:"Well I didn't vote for you!". – gla3dr Apr 19 '16 at 17:48
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    Yes, @Clomp, It calls itself is grammatical and idiomatic for certain values of the polysemous verb call. True, and utterly irrelevant. – Colin Fine Apr 19 '16 at 21:14
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    @Clomp: I have not accepted your edit, for that reason: you are talking about a different meaning of call, so your point confuses the issue rather than enlightening it. – Colin Fine Apr 19 '16 at 21:26
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  1. Yes, that is proper English.
  2. It sound a little strange, since it's not clear whether the antecedent ("a special ward") is a governmental or other organizational unit, or simply the people who live there, when they speak English.
  3. You can say "it calls itself" about anything, as long as you're willing to assert that it's capable of naming itself...so yes, broadly speaking. But practically, it has to be something like a person or organization.
6

In English, it calls itself Nerima City.

The sentence, as it was found in the Wikipedia article before it got edited to something more informative and natural, was terrible and unnatural.

The sentence is technically grammatical, but it is usually used for things that cannot talk, so the phrase has problems from the beginning (something that cannot talk cannot call itself anything). Therefore, it calls itself will not be used often.

  • It may not be obvious to speakers of languages which do use a reflexive construction for this sort of sentence why the phrase has problems. – Colin Fine Apr 18 '16 at 23:07
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    Incorporated bodies cannot speak for themselves? – user662852 Apr 19 '16 at 1:54
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    @user662852 They can under legal fiction in the majority of western legal systems. – Aron Apr 19 '16 at 5:10
  • @aron "Corporations are people, my friend" – user662852 Apr 19 '16 at 11:41
  • @user662852 By my understanding, the main reason for that is due to how contract law works; if corporations were not treated as legal entities for the purpose of forming contracts, you'd either need a specific person designated as the contract-holder or need everyone involved in the corporation to be explicitly part of the contract. It's also beneficial for tax purposes as the corporation gets treated as its own entity rather than having to work out the portion of business taxes owed by those involved in the corporation. They aren't actually treated as real people. (Of course, IANL so whatev.) – JAB Apr 19 '16 at 17:16
3

I agree that "calls itself" is correct English. It does, however, have a somewhat ironic taste to it, as if there was something just slightly comical about this appellation. If irony is not intended I would suggest that it is poor style rather than grammatically incorrect.

2

From the article on special wards:

Although special wards are autonomous from the Tokyo metropolitan government, they also function as a single urban entity in respect to certain public services, including water supply, sewage disposal, and fire services.

If you think about humans, it would not be unreasonable to see the construction "He calls himself Joe" or "She calls herself Kate." "It calls itself Nerima City" is a natural next step, if you permit governing districts to phrase things as though they are agents. It's actually not that uncommon for us to talk about governing bodies as though they were agents: "The US demands the withdraw of troops from the border."

The second half of the puzzle is the fact that Nerima calls itself a city:

In Japanese, they are commonly known as the 23 wards (23区 nijūsan-ku?). Confusingly, all wards refer to themselves as a city in English, but the Japanese designation of special ward (tokubetsu ku) remains unchanged. Moreover, in everyday English, Tokyo as a whole is also referred to as a city. Thus, the closest English equivalents for the special wards would be the London boroughs, and this can help to understand their structures and functions.

So if an official from Nerima were to talk to you in English, they would call their region "Nerima city," even though you would think of it as a ward, not a city.

  • 1
    I disagree with your contention that "it would not be unreasonable to see the construction 'He calls himself Joe' or 'She calls herself Kate'." If someone said that to me, I would think they meant something like "He calls himself Joe, ... but his real name is Fred" or "She calls herself Kate because she doesn't like her birth name of Mary". As user568458 has indicated, this is "an informal, fairly common subtle way to express scepticism, ... about something; particularly, the validity of its name." Altho' it may be technically correct, it's not idiomatic English. – TrevorD Apr 19 '16 at 10:07
  • @TrevorD I agree with the connotation you mentino, hence why "it would not be unreasonable" rather than something more positive. However, those constructions do appear more often than one might think. a Google n-grams search ( books.google.com/ngrams/… ) "her name is" is only 5x more popular than "she calls herself" in the literature. – Cort Ammon Apr 19 '16 at 14:41
0

Is "it calls itself" proper English?

  • The question of propriety I won't answer because it is misguided. Perhaps you want to know if it's either commonplace or seen as "educated". It seems fine to me.

If it is, does it sound natural or more encyclopedic perhaps? See above. It doesn't seem "academic", if that's what you want to know. It actually seems like a quite creative way to say how one place's people see themselves as.

Can you say "it calls itself" about anything that has a name, or are there some restrictions?

  • This is why you got to get the flavor of the phrase. Once you have it, you would only use it for either similar cases (e.g., Google calls itself etc...) or expand into further uses of the idea.

Language is organic and engages rules much like traffic laws. That is, you don't need to follow them strictly to still do some amazing things.

0

If an object has the ability to both call and be called (callable), then this sentence makes perfect sense. While reading the example that was posted I was thrown off because it is atypical to reference a city calling something.

A very common use case of "it calls itself" is in programming. If a function is recursive it is very easily explained by saying that "it calls itself". Again, this makes sense because functions call other functions and are callable.

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