The referent of a word or phrase in a sentence is the thing to which that word refers, e.g. in "The businessman greeted me," the referent of 'the businessman' is the person who said hello, and the referent of 'me' is the speaker of the sentence.

Is there a name for those words or phrase which have referents, highlighting the fact that they stand for something? I seek to fill in the following blank:

If John is the referent of 'the businessman', then the phrase 'the businessman' is a ______ of John.

Said another way, I am looking for a sort of inverse word to referent, in the same way that parent is an inverse to child.

  • By its basic definition, referent is not "transitive," that is, it is not with respect to another thing but an absolute entity. However, in grammar, a referent is pointed to by another word/ phrase/ clause etc., which is generally called the referring word. The given example could possibly be thought either way -- the person being referred to (in a standalone way), as well as being referred to by me -- "the referring person?" – Kris Sep 21 '16 at 10:49
  • What's with the child and the parent? Where's the connection? – Helmar Sep 21 '16 at 11:02
  • @Helmar The ability to invert: Junior is John's child, so John is Junior's parent. I need a word or phrase which is understood to be inverse to 'referent' in this way. – algorithmshark Sep 21 '16 at 11:50
  • 'referrer'? Thing doing the referring? – Mitch Sep 21 '16 at 12:01
  • @algorithmshark Maybe you should add this to your question. The ability to invert is not in there. – Helmar Sep 21 '16 at 12:01

Consider referring expression, denoting expression, or designating expression. In philosophy of language, these terms are often used interchangeably (although not always).

If you must have a single word, consider designator.

Oxford has an example sentence using designator to mean "referring expression":

It is routine administrative traffic full of alphanumeric designators that mean little without a cue sheet, a recitation of mileages, case numbers and criminal histories.

Your example sentence becomes:

The phrase 'the businessman' is a designator of John.

The reciprocal of designator is designatum (the thing designated or referred to).


I would go with characterization.

1.portrayal; description: the actor's characterization of a politician. 2. the act of characterizing or describing the individual quality of a person or thing.

Meaning 2 would seem to describe the process of establishing businessman as a referent for John (or vice versa).

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