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THE LANGUAGE OF NAMES by Justin Kaplan

THE LANGUAGE OF NAMES

By Justin Kaplan (Author) , Anne Bernays (Author)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-80741-6
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 A pleasantly discursive and anecdotally informative light meditation on the ``profound, almost magical, but often unacknowledged significance'' of names. The husband-and-wife team of biographer Kaplan (Walt Whitman: A Life, 1980, etc.) and novelist Bernays (Professor Romeo, 1989, etc.) canvass the importance of naming, from Adam's labeling of creation to the artificially concocted trademarks of the contemporary Namelab, a San Francicobased company that came up with product tags like ``Acura'' and ``Compaq.'' Although naming is a universal phenomenon, the authors concentrate on North America, where there has been historically more room for innovation and confusion. The colorful, odd, or startling names given many of the nation's localities are as diverse as the more problematic renamings of its immigrant population. For example, the curiously named Judge Learned Hand opined in the case of the Selwyn film company against Samuel Goldfish (a.k.a. Schmuel Gelbfisz) that ``a self-made man may prefer a self-made name,'' and allowed the defendant to call himself Samuel Goldwyn. The cultural and transliterative difficulties of Eastern Europeans seem almost negligible when compared to those of African-Americans (or blacks, Negroes, etc.), who wrestle with the dilemma of established ``slave'' names as opposed to adoptive pan-African patronymics. Changing names is almost mandatory in some professions, especially the film industry, where Gladys Smith became Mary Pickford. In the literary world, authors like Dickens (first called Boz) and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) took as much trouble with their noms de plume as with their characters. While they deftly sample a smorgasbord of nomenclature, the authors are slightly less adept in extracting significance, such as psychological meanings and social usages, from the matter of naming. But unpacking what's in a name, especially in America, makes for an inexhaustible and entertaining subject for Kaplan and Bernays.