I came across the word "proper" while reading a random comment on a video about WW2 Japanese history on YouTube.

Showing even more dedication to their ideology was when Americans started landing on Japan proper, both civilians and soldiers committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.

I looked the word up on Lexico.com. This what it gave:

part of speech: adverb, British informal dialect, definition--satisfactorily or correct

At first, I thought proper meant exactly like the Lexico entry said but I was still confused.

Next, I looked up the word in the Collins Dictionary and I got this:

You can add proper after a word to indicate that you are referring to the central and most important part of a place, event, or object and want to distinguish it from other things that are not regarded as being important or central to it.

Example: A distinction must be made between archaeology proper and science-based archaeology

I still am confused. Please explain what the word "proper" means, whether in the context of the YouTube comment or in a general context.

3 Answers 3


This use is the sense described in Collins. It is an adjective, but unlike most adjectives, it is placed after the noun. Lexico has the definition:

1.1 postpositive Strictly so called; in its true form.

Postpositive is a technical term, meaning "placed after". This definition is not very clear, and the Collins definition is better: It means the "real Japan" (and not outlying islands or Japanese colonies).

The adverbal use is very casual, and comes after a verb. "He talks proper" to mean "He talks properly or correctly". If you say "He talks proper" then you are not talking proper at all!

  • Good point about its adverbial use. I bet that's what used to annoy Prime Mover's parents. Aug 15, 2022 at 8:12
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    I guess the OP thought it was modifying "landing", hence the conclusion that it was an adverb.
    – Barmar
    Aug 15, 2022 at 14:48
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    If it helps, another postpositive is "general" as in "attorney general". So the plural is technically "attorneys general" instead of "attorney generals" (though either is fine colloquially). IIRC, English picked this up from French, where most adjectives go after the noun.
    – wjandrea
    Aug 15, 2022 at 15:38
  • However, the postpositive placement of "proper" does not seem to be related to the French cognate. In French, "propre" means "clean" or "own".
    – James K
    Aug 15, 2022 at 16:11
  • @JamesK I think the remark about French was in reference to "attorney general" specifically, rather than English postpositive adjectives in general. Aug 15, 2022 at 20:01

Proper is nearly always employed as an adjective. Properly would be its associated adverb.

But the particular adjectival sense in which it is used here is a special one where it appears as a post-modifier. It is OED sense 7c(b).

(b) As postmodifier, designating the part or aspect of a larger entity that is most accurately so called.

The first example is from 1796:

1796 D. MacPherson Geogr. Illustr. Sc. Hist. Albany, Albania, Scotland, strictly speaking the country between the Forth and the Spey, or Scotland proper.

More recent examples are:

1975 Countryman Autumn 30 Apart from the garden proper, there is a great area to the north which is being planted with trees.

2005 Yorks. Evening Post (Nexis) 18 Jan. US favourites like meatloaf, BBQ chicken with fried yams, [etc.],..are all on a three-course menu of soul food that's being served up before the music proper gets under way.

In the OP's example Japan proper clearly means the area of Japan itself, as opposed to its outlying possessions.

  • TIL, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Loch Ness are not in "Scotland proper"!
    – James K
    Aug 15, 2022 at 10:06
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    @JamesK This was 1796 - the time of the Highland clearances. What different parties regarded as constituting "Scotland proper" was, I suppose, quite a mobile matter.
    – WS2
    Aug 15, 2022 at 11:01
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    Are we talking about the 'no true Scots place' fallacy here? Aug 15, 2022 at 11:14

The word 'proper' has more than one meaning. It can be an adjective, meaning (e.g.) 'real, satisfactory, suitable, or correct', 'showing standards of behaviour that are socially and morally acceptable', or 'complete'.

The word also has a separate meaning when used, usually after a noun, in this case the name of a country: 'belonging to the main, most important, or typical part'. This is the meaning you have seen in the Youtube comment.

During the Second World War, American military forces fought against the Empire of Japan, following the attack by the latter on Pearl Harbor. First the Americans attacked and defeated Japanese forces in territories and occupied areas outside Japan, then in 1945 they advanced to the edge of what Japanese people considered their homeland area (and not colonies), for example Iwo Jima, in the Nanpo Shoto Islands which are administratively, part of Tokyo, next, Okinawa. These were Japan proper.

Other examples:

Before the meal proper begins at Silk, Frankfurt's most futuristic restaurant, you're handed a ceramic spoon containing what appears to be the yolk of an egg.

Before the concert proper Nico Muhly and friends played an introduction to the first set of songs.

As soon as you're unpacked and have found the right bed for you, the holiday proper can begin!

A swathe of wasteland follows and then, further along, comes the town proper.

  • 3
    @PrimeMover - Really? Oxford doesn't call the definition strictly so called; in its true form colloquial, and I've never heard anyone suggest that it is 'slang'. Aug 15, 2022 at 7:55
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    @PrimeMover - There is nothing colloquial whatsoever about this specialised geo/political usage. It is very common in e.g. town planning discussions, e.g. about the regions around London that, although not administratively part of that, are bound to it: 'these areas are definitely not ‘London’ proper but part of its wider economic sphere of influence.' Nothing colloquial there. Maybe you're think about e.g. 'Learn to talk proper'? Aug 15, 2022 at 8:04
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    @PrimeMover Are you sure it wasn't "I felt a proper charlie" they called colloquial? Aug 15, 2022 at 8:08
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    @PrimeMover - I too suffered as you did, although the attack was two-pronged: the infant and junior schools tried to eradicate grammatical solecisms like 'there's two apples on the table', whereas with my parents it was mostly pronunciation and accent, dropped aitches, glottal stops, etc. My mother: 'Don't say 'ain't', say 'isn't' and 'Say cake, not 'cike'. I do recall, when I was very little, an aged great-aunt, who, I fancy, talked like a mixture of Sam Weller and Dot Cotton's granny. Not to be emulated, it was quietly made clear. The nervousness of the lower middle classes of that era. Aug 15, 2022 at 8:40
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    @PrimeMover - apposite joke. A father overhears his son using a bad word while playing with a pal. Father: Don't say that word! Son: But, Dad, Charles Dickens uses the word 'bastard'. Father: Well, don't f***ing play with him then! Aug 15, 2022 at 9:14

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