The "Underground Railroad" wasn't a real railroad but it was given that name. Is there a word for what kind of name "Underground Railroad" is? It's a made up name for a phenomenon that's also sort of a metaphor (as in if it were not a recognized proper name, someone might still write "they traveled along the underground railroad" as a metaphor). Is there such thing as a proper name metaphor?

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    For the most part it wasn't "underground" either. Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 21:01
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    Historical names are not like other names. What about the Velvet Revolution?
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 21:37

3 Answers 3


Sounds like a kenning to me. A kenning is a compound, usually consisting of 2 nouns, which metaphorically describe something or someone.


"Missile toes"---a marathon winner. "I'd never participate in a marathon; I'm no missile toes."

"Gutsquatters"---intestinal parasites. "Those darn gutsquatters I picked up in South America have been plaguing me."

"Word pruner"---editor. "After a word pruner finishes checking over a manuscript, as much as half of it might be gone."


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    Hey Wordster, this is really interesting. I had never heard this word before and I think it applies. On this site, though, we try to give complete answers and to not make people follow links. (Give the links, but also give the relevant content.) Go check out some well scored answers on the site. When you've edited let me know and I'll come back to upvote.
    – Unrelated
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 23:11
  • Thanx, @Unrelated. I did my best editing the answer, but am thinking that it's a bit redundant in the face of Kris having provided a thorough answer. I appreciate the upvote!
    – Wordster
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 19:02
  • Although it's related to OE/Old Norse, some linguists seem to use this term when they see Bahuvrihi samasa. In that sense this answer is also relevant and useful. I had up voted this answer early on.
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 6:36

Figurative might be what you are looking for.

The figuratively named "underground railroad" helped to smuggle slaves to free land.


It's a linguistic device originating in Sanskrit and also found in Old English and Old Norse poetry.

It's a compound expression known as Bahuvrihi, similar to an idiomatic expression but here the literal meanings of the component words are also significant.

Bahuvrihi (WP)

A bahuvrihi compound (from Sanskrit: बहुव्रीहि, literally meaning "much rice" but denoting a rich man) is a type of compound in Sanskrit grammar, that denotes a referent by specifying a certain characteristic or quality the referent possesses.

  • "Houndstooth", a woven fabric with a patterns resembling dog's teeth: "She's wearing houndstooth."
  • "Old money", members from established upper-class who have usually inherited their wealth: "He's definitely old money."
  • "Bluestocking", an educated, intellectual or artistically accomplished woman: "Auntie Maud will never marry; she's a bluestocking."
  • As much as I love Sanskrit in general and bahuvrīhi compounds in particular, this one is not an example IMO. In a bahuvrīhi compound (also called "exocentric" in English) not only is the "head" not present in the compound, but also it is related to the components of the compound. For example, "[cloth with] hounds' tooth", "[one with] old money", "[one wearing] blue stocking" etc. (See a good set of examples here, though the author is wrong about Sanskrit and how narrowly "bahuvrīhi" is used there.) Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 22:26

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