From Bram Stoker's "Dracula":

At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.

From what I understand, the word "proper" modifies "war", in which case I presume I am right to believe that the closest definition of it is "strictly limited to a specified thing, place, or idea" (6th meaning presented in Merriam-Webster's dictionary), which somehow, at least to my impression, makes no difference? How would the meaning change if "proper" were to be removed from the sentence? Or does the word proper modify the part that comes after it?

This is the first time I have come across such a usage of the word, and perhaps I'm missing something, so I'd very much appreciate any help or input : )

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    In this case it means people who died as a direct result of war/combat (i.e. they were shot/stabbed/blown up/etc), and not people who died from secondary causes such as famine and disease. Commented Mar 17 at 19:40

2 Answers 2


Some other dictionaries give a longer explanation. For example:

The "casualties of war proper" would be those killed or injured by warfare itself. War kills or injures people directly, but it also brings about side effects like famine and disease, and the people harmed by those are then indirect victims of war (not harmed by bullets or bombs).

To me personally, this phrasing as used by Stoker here does have a bit of an old-fashioned sound to it. You could use "casualties of war itself" rather than "casualties of war proper" here.

Another such use of "proper" can involve territory. For example, the term "Ukraine proper" has been used occasionally to refer to the parts of Ukraine's 1991 territory not under Russian control, for example:

More territorial usages with Wikipedia articles include:

  • "China proper", controversially used to denote only certain core Han areas
  • "Sweden proper", used in earlier centuries when Sweden controlled Finland and other territories
  • "Norway Proper", excluding territories like Svalbard
  • "city proper", used to refer to only the area within city limits, excluding suburbs and other parts of the metropolitan area that are towns or cities in their own right
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    Oh! This "itself" analogy is really what made it click for me, now I see! Much appreciated ❤️ Commented Mar 17 at 8:23
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    To me the most relevant shade here is not direct/indirect, but the idea that the war is really underway, that it isn't rumours or things that seem warlike but an actual war: war as it really is, whatever it is that may properly be called "war". Commented Mar 17 at 15:14
  • "war proper" appears frequently in books about the nature of war, the ethics of war, strategies of warfare, the theory of conflict, etc. It's a philosophical/academic distinction to separate famine, disease, displacement, etc from "war".
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 17 at 15:14
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    @LukeSawczak Yes, the terminology "war proper" is commonly used in that way. However, in the context of OP's quotation, it is clear that we are talking about "casualties-of-war proper" rather than "casualties of war-proper" - were it the latter the additional casualties would derive from unrest, violence, skirmishes, etc. in the build-up predating the full-on declared war.
    – DotCounter
    Commented Mar 18 at 16:01

Modern English people will often use it as a prefix instead. For example: "Later on we should go the pub and get proper wasted"

Maybe the "proper" in the question is a prefix to what comes after? "the casualties of war are properly being assisted with death by famine and disease"

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    Proper as in "proper wasted" means to enhance the degree by which one gets wasted, which is an entirely different usage.
    – Phil
    Commented Mar 17 at 23:13
  • This should be "properly". Although I think this misuse of the adjective is not uncommon in casual British conversation. I don't think I've ever heard this slang use of "proper" in AmE.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 18 at 0:54
  • @Barmar No, it shouldn’t be properly. When you go on a bender, you’re much more likely to say you get proper wasted than properly wasted (which, to me anyway, would imply getting wasted in an appropriate way). Similarly, something can be ‘proper nice’, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘properly nice’. It is a very British thing, but adverbial proper is quite commonplace and not slangy, just colloquial. (But as Phil says, it is a completely different use to the one in the Stoker quote and not actually relevant to the question here at all.) Commented Mar 18 at 10:42

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