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Naming Names

THE LANGUAGE OF NAMES. By Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays . Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $22

March 23, 1997|THOMAS MALLON | Thomas Mallon is the author of "A Book of One's Own," a study of diaries. His novel, "Dewey Defeats Truman" (Pantheon), was recently published

In all the accounts of those grotesque baby beauty pageants inflicted on JonBenet Ramsey, I have yet to see any suggestion that the abuse of this child began the moment she was named. "JonBenet," with its ridiculous central capital, was cobbled together from the first and middle names (John Bennett) of her father. At that instant, it seems to me, this little girl became the ego trip of her parents, fit for parading instead of for living anything close to an actual childhood.

Two schools of thought argue over the amount of power involved in naming and in names themselves. John Stuart Mill declared names to be "simply marks used to enable . . . individuals to be made subjects of discourse," while others have seen them as having a natural correspondence to their objects or even a predictive capacity. In their new book, "The Language of Names," the husband-and-wife team of biographer Justin Kaplan and novelist Anne Bernays don't underestimate what they're dealing with: "Names are what anthropologists call cultural universals. Apparently there has never been a society able to get along without them." Going even further, Kaplan, in his portion of the book's preface, declares that names "penetrate the core of our being and are a form of poetry, storytelling, magic and compressed history."

Amid the fast glances they direct toward the subject, Bernays and Kaplan convince a reader that, despite its discoverer's mistaken coinage of "Indians" ("one of the great naming blunders of history"), America went on to achieve great distinction with its abundant appellations. On the subject of U.S. geography, the authors are most interesting: "Never in history had there been such a concentrated demand for place-names. What had evolved in Europe over the course of millenniums had to be done right away, and it was done with remarkable verve and originality." Minneapolis, for example, was the "shotgun marriage" of "the Sioux Indian word minnehaha ('laughing waters' in Longfellow's "Hiawatha") and the Greek word polis (city)."

In this country, where we follow "naming fashions rather than naming systems," inhabitants have the "right to take and use a new name so long as it isn't offensive, confusing, inciting to violence and racial hatred, or taken for some unlawful purpose such as fraud, flight from the law, evasion of debt or bankruptcy, or the commission of a crime." (Numbers and--despite whatever the artist formerly known as Prince thinks--hieroglyphics are also out.) This freedom, along with four centuries of immigration, has put about 25,000 surnames onto America's Social Security rolls, an enormous number, more than one can find in places with systematic naming conventions, such as China and Scandinavia.

Bernays and Kaplan are also good on the invention of literary characters' names: John Updike has, on occasion, resorted to the phone book, whereas J. D. Salinger christened Holden Caulfield after seeing "two names on a marquee for the 1947 movie 'Dear Ruth'--William Holden and Joan Caulfield."

But the authors enter their most serious territory in talking about ethnicity and gender. Whereas American Jews have often changed their names in a quest for assimilation, blacks have typically refashioned theirs to assert origins and maintain a distance from the white majority. Slave names have become African ones, and today's trend toward neologism has filled American schools with youngsters named Alexicor, Malakah and Zikkiyyia.

Bernays and Kaplan don't go very deep into the psychology or implications of all this, just as they pretty much settle for listing, instead of exploring, Hollywood's onomastic make-overs. A reader still wonders: Just what is the aural power of "Marilyn Monroe" and "Cary Grant" on the psyche? The authors do better with the AIDS quilt and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, some of whose visitors "claim that if they stand long enough in one place they begin to see on the polished stone a reflection of the man or woman who bore that name."

Their consideration of the naming dilemmas and opportunities created by feminism are heavily influenced by Bernays' own experience ("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"), as well as her mother's curious ambivalence: A longtime member of the Lucy Stoner League, an organization of professional women who in the 1920s advocated the use of maiden names over married ones, she eventually traded in Miss Fleischman for Mrs. Bernays, declaring it a mistake to think that "keeping [a] father's name is more significant than taking [a] husband's." The book's discussion of hyphenation and melding and other contemporary marital strategies is less than satisfying, though perhaps the subject doesn't allow for anything better.

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