My name is a double disguise. The first is male, the second sounds Jewish, but I am neither. I am the only member of my family born with the surname Berger, itself a borrowing from an outsider not related to any of us. It took three generations of tortuous changes in name, place, and allegiance to reach the curious finality of these two names, which make me appear to be what I am not and which, because of their singularity, define none but me.

In their brief, engaging study, The Language of Names, Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays tell many stories like mine; the history of America is the history of people deciding what they are to be called and what to call the place in which they live. Immigrants, outlaws, social strivers, and kooks all seek control over what they’re called; for others—that boy named Sue, whose example gets his own chapter here, or the Tiffani whose school essay rates half a mark lower than the serious-sounding Kate’s—names to some degree control their fate. It is not news to Kaplan and Bernays that there are as few boxers named Egbert as there are scientists named Rocky. (Sadly, hardly anyone bears either name these days.) Many of this book’s stories resonate for someone whose allegiance is divided—revealingly, Danish “identity crisis” guru Erik H. Erikson recalls being called “goy” in his Jewish stepfather’s temple and “Jew” at his German school.

The language of names is a slippery one, easy to learn but almost impossible to speak without encountering a minefield of sensitivities (to race, sex, or marital and social status) and difficulties (in pronunciation and etiquette). One of the book’s virtues is how easily its authors allow the categories, though broadly divided by chapter, to bleed into one another; the look at “Black Naming” could provide a fuller reasoning for the results of the television-names questionnaire introduced in a later chapter that insisted that “Ruby Daniel” had to be a black jazz singer and “Andrea Wolcot” a doctor and radical feminist.

But the chapters cover a lot of ground on their own. Nicknames make a colorful kaleidoscope in “A Strange Kind of Magick Bias,” while the chapter “City of Names” avoids the usual “Who would put Archibald Leach in a movie?” sort of thing and instead looks at the nomenclature the movie industry has irretrievably loosed on the world—”blowup,” “double feature,” “flashback,” “film noir,” “cinéma vérité”—and the evolution from nameless actors to the star system. “Literary Names” is great fun, not only allowing us to peer in at authors’ work tables while they scribble out the unacceptable (Dickens’ “Puny Pete” never made it into A Christmas Carol, thank heavens), but scattering delightful trivialities along the way, such as the fact that “Fiona,” Vanessa,” and “Wendy” are all authorial coinages.

However fascinating, The Language of Names is sometimes frustrating for its incompleteness. American regionalism means nothing to Kaplan and Bernays—they casually cite the motives of the boy named Sue’s father as sadism, seemingly unaware that there are male Laverns, Shirleys, and Beverlys all over the South. And to cite one of the great name-choosers of all time, Vladimir Nabokov (himself an anagrammatic menagerie including Vivian Darkbloom and Baron von Librikov), by reprinting the first paragraph of Lolita with a mistake (Humbert never called her “L”) is inexcusable. And they are unsure, after all those books and deaths, whether Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby was “a double or triple agent.”

But the research that Kaplan and Bernays have done is valuable and tremendous fun. The Language of Names is one of those rare books that explores something dear to every reader. After all, there is no more subtle and efficient slight than refusing to learn—or pretending not to know—someone’s name. The authors’ own daughter Hester demonstrates the family insight when she says she used to hate her name because people couldn’t hear it; they thought it was Esther or Heather. “It wasn’t my name,” she says. “It was as if they didn’t know who I was.” As someone who has been called everything from Harriet to Ariadne to Arnold, I agree wholeheartedly with Hester: When someone knows what to call you, you come into focus, you take shape. The vagaries of naming can be amusing or distressing or delightful, but the act is so much more—a weapon of proof of human existence in the face of the nameless void.CP