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The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters

The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters

by Justin Kaplan, Anne Bernays

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As delightful and playful as it is profound and serious, The Language of Names is an absolute original — a fascinating book that reveals us to ourselves, that demonstrates the endless variety of ways in which names shape our daily lives. Drawing on social and literary history, psychology and anthropology, anecdotes, and life stories, biographer Justin


As delightful and playful as it is profound and serious, The Language of Names is an absolute original — a fascinating book that reveals us to ourselves, that demonstrates the endless variety of ways in which names shape our daily lives. Drawing on social and literary history, psychology and anthropology, anecdotes, and life stories, biographer Justin Kaplan and novelist Anne Bernays have written a fascinating account of names and naming in contemporary society that touches on class structure, ethnic and religious practices, manners, and everyday life.
Graceful, eloquent, and richly informed, The Language of Names explores and illuminates our favorite subject — ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
David Mehegan The Boston Globe A readable and extraordinarily detailed exploration of human names and naming....irresistible.

Marina Warner The New York Times Book Review Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Bernays's approach is genial, light-handed, as if engaging the reader in party conversation....The Language of Names tackles a rich and fascinating theme.

John Strawn Portland Oregonian An entertaining look at a subject we intuitively regard as of great importance...but rarely think about.

David Crumm Detroit Free Press The authors aren't trying to prove a thesis as much as they are trying to leave us with a sense of wonderment, so that the next time we meet someone, we might linger a moment longer in pondering his or her name.

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Read an Excerpt


When I was a child, my mother insisted that I introduce her to my friends as Miss Fleischman. Each time I did this, my new friend would wait until we were alone and then ask, "Why isn't your mother married to your father?" I burned with embarrassment. Nowadays this sort of morally inflected discrepancy is common enough to go unnoted, but in the thirties and forties, to have your mother be "Miss" was daunting. I'm sure I was whispered about at school.

When I got married in 1954, I was thrilled to be a "Mrs." In those days marriage was not considered a beginning but a longed-for end: the conclusion of singleness, a shameful condition that was mere prelude to spinsterhood. It wasn't until I began to publish fiction that I reassumed my original last name. But still, the unresolved chord of this dissonance has remained with me. Sometimes I'm Ms. Bernays, sometimes Ms. Kaplan, sometimes Mrs. Kaplan. For anything that has to do with money, health, my children's schooling, or an official transaction, I'm Anne Kaplan or, even more hidden, Mrs. Justin Kaplan. Occasionally when I'm asked who I am, I say, "I don't know." This dilemma — not just about names but about identity — is part of the reason Justin Kaplan and I decided to write this book. What is actually going on when a person is known by two different names? Is it psychically invigorating or does it make for energy-draining confusion?

Are we oversensitive if we bristle when someone gets our name wrong or spells it incorrectly or, even worse, forgets it entirely? Marian is Marion with one different letter, a letter that doesn't even figure in its pronunciation. Yet one is male and one female — a big difference — and Marian is distressed when she finds her name written as Marion. Likewise Anne as Ann, Hillary as Hilary, Alison as Allison — all familiar variants. Why should we feel we must correct someone who has misspelled or mispronounced our name? Isn't it because we feel diminished, less lovely, unimportant, not quite visible?

It seems obvious that name and self-identity are permanently wed. No one is more aware of this than a child. On his first day in school, a boy named Michael discovered that there were two other boys with the same name. (This is more or less predictable these days; in a recent coed class of nineteen, five were Michaels.) When his mother came to pick him up, he ran to her crying and demanding to know why she hadn't told him she had two other children. You can smile at this, but many adults have not outgrown such a primitive response to their own names. Why should we? Isn't a name not only an identifier but a metaphor for reliability and probity — "Sir, are you impugning my good name?" — and a guarantee that if we are who we say we are, we will do what we promise to do?

In writing fiction, I have to give my characters names that send the reader an assortment of manifest and subliminal messages. You know when you've got the name right and, conversely, when it's wrong. Can this process be analyzed? How have other writers come up with such singular fictional names as Sherlock Holmes, Lolita, Murdstone? How and why do we give our children the names we do? Is the trend toward informality of all kinds reflected in what we call one another? Does the black population have special problems with special solutions in the matter of names, both collective and individual?

Names are everywhere; they are preeminent in human discourse and social choreography. It's not simply that we all have a name, reproducing it thousands of times each year, in writing or orally, in countless transactions — signing receipts, getting on-line, making a dentist appointment, requesting a catalog, introducing ourselves to strangers, and on and on — weaving ourselves through an assortment of circumstances. Our name is our passport to wherever it is we need to go. Without one, we are paralyzed and naked. Separate a person from her name — as the Nazis did with their concentration camp victims — and you take away what makes her human rather than simply alive.

This is just some of the territory that Justin Kaplan and I decided to explore as we began our joint work on The Language of Names. To give the project a more abstract spin: since names have profound, almost magical, but often unacknowledged significance, and because the language of names is the lingua franca in so many areas of human activity, this language appeared to be an ideal way of examining American society at close range — its past and present; its literature, class systems, ethnic and religious practices and features; its manners and domestic life.


On my birth certificate, I'm Justin, a name (rare in those days but rare no longer) my mother favored and my father barely tolerated. When she died (I was seven), he reimposed his own first choice, which had been Joseph, and when he died (I was twelve), I was left with a double first-name identity, as well as a confusion in school and medical records. By the time I went to college, I had begun to define the situation in this way. Joseph was the double orphan, alone, afraid, uncertain. Justin was an evolving, more confident, and more competent sort of person, who had begun to see the possibility of finding his way to definition through love and work. And by the time Justin arrived at this transitional stage in his evolution, he had started to resent and reject just about everything associated with Joseph. Even now — rather, especially now — when someone introduces me (Justin) as Joseph or Joe, my first response is one of outrage, and there's no canon of behavior I recognize that keeps me from correcting that person, sometimes rather abruptly. I've not only been mistaken for someone else, but everything about me in the way of personal and professional identity has been denied.

As biographer and critic I became a sort of aficionado of names and naming and began to view them in increasingly broad perspectives. What must it have been like, I wanted to know, for the first European settlers to arrive in a country where everything — mountains, rivers, wilderness trails — was new, strange, and nameless? (That they persisted in calling the natives Indians is one of the great naming blunders of history.) No wonder Adam, charged with naming all the creatures in the garden God planted eastward in Eden, has symbolized the experience of Americans from their beginnings as a new kind of society to the present day. Father of all namers, Adam was present in spirit when the colonies became the United States of America, when slaves stood on the auction block, when immigrants passed through Ellis Island, when moviemakers came to Hollywood. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, Americans claimed the right to name and rename themselves in order to become whoever they wished to be. Gatsby, as Fitzgerald wrote, "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself."

One day recently, turning the tables somewhat, I asked a doctor examining me how he felt about his name (let's call him Bernard Marsh). He said he didn't pay much attention to it — names are just names, after all, and what more is there to say? Then, casually, as if this were of no importance to him or had never occurred to him before, he mentioned another doctor at the same hospital, this one surnamed March, whose mail, telephone messages, patient records, and medical orders were often confused with his. This was bad enough, as a purely operational thing, so to speak, but also involved, Marsh went on to explain, was an unpleasant association. March's older brother, also a doctor, had once been involved in some sort of medical misadventure, and everybody on staff at the hospital knew about it. At stake, it now developed in our examining-room conversation, was not only Dr. Marsh's convenience, privacy, and confidentiality, but his very reputation, self-regard, self-definition, and identity. So names weren't just names, he finally conceded. In time he might have come around to believing, as I do, that names penetrate the core of our being and are a form of poetry, storytelling, magic, and compressed history. That's what this book is about.


Copyright © 1997 by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays

Meet the Author

Justin Kaplan is the author of Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and of Walt Whitman: A Life, which won the American Book Award. He is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, novelist Anne Bernays.

Anne Bernays is a novelist (including Professor Romeo and Growing Up Rich) and coauthor, with her husband, Justin Kaplan, of Back Then: Two Lives in 1950s New York. Her articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in such major publications as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and The Nation. A long-time teacher of writing, she is coauthor, with Pamela Painter, of the textbook What If? Ms. Bernays currently teaches at Harvard's Nieman Foundation. She and Mr. Kaplan have six grandchildren. They live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Truro, Cape Cod.

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