Cressida reveals all before you meet her

A Matter of Taste
June 8, 2001

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip."

Charles Dickens, as Stanley Lieberson remarks in this austere, attentive but kindly book, delighted in names, and like no one else in English literature except Shakespeare, made them tell: tell of character, history, fate and fortune. Pumblechook, Fagin, Traddles, Mowcher, Peggotty, the names are replete with aura and presence, mass and energy. They somehow cause things to happen.

Lieberson's puzzle is to say what causes the names themselves to happen and to turn his answer into a provisional explanation of what causes the great name of culture to happen along with the names. This is not, however, and thank God for it, a work of theory. To one's amazement, this is a straightforward and honest book about the processes of culture as they manifest themselves in the familiar, familial, loving and contentious preoccupation of incipient parents as each chooses the next child's name. Its epistemological foundation is laid on the facts of the names, the frequency of their appearance over time, their origins in dynasty, in sacred books and sacred movies, in patterns of friendship, in group history or sheer invention.

The result is an old-fashioned work of classical empiricism, and after one has leafed through the tables in which the great Spearman's correlation coefficient is so inventively transformed into a measure of the turnover of the national stock of names (their continuity, their supercession, their reappearance), the pleasure of the book takes hold and the reader follows the rise and fall of family names, the persistence of Rebecca, the concoction of Laverne, the disappearance of Ruth, alas, into her alien corn.

Lieberson stands quietly by his names and numbers in order to rebut those eager but erroneous explanations of fashion that attribute choice to ethnicity (Dolores), to the spur of fame (Marlene and Marilyn), to historical veneration (George). It is always, he says, easy to contrive plausible explanations, far harder to make correct ones.

This is the great business of sociology, and as is his disciplinary duty, Lieberson finds the heart of the matter in the "internal mechanisms" of culture herself, where a hierarchy of forces (which he cannot - who can? - enumerate) drums a complicated tattoo on the play of different-but-not-too-different custom and fashion, star-gazing, saint-worshipping and simple euphony that order the march of names into the registrar's records.

Some of this is a bit general; his approach, we learn rather dully, is to be "multilayered, probabilistic, asymmetrical". Some of it is banal, but perhaps salutorily so: "It is fairly easy to account for almost any taste in terms of some feature or other of the social order." (He needs to say it; functionalism is not yet, after all, dead.) Some of it offers moments of endearing recognition: "Choice-making (of names) is itself a pleasureI a prolonged, savoured part of pregnancy." All of it is scrupulous, painstaking, provisional, clear as a bell.

For English tastes, he is surprisingly scant on taste as formed by class. In this country, one has only to hear the three mellifluous syllables of Jeremy or Cressida to know where one is in social structure, and it is hard not to put down those baptisms to the mere preservation of superiority. It is a disappointment that Lieberson does not forsake Durkheim for Clifford Geertz and pursue the meaning of names into their allocative mystery. In spite of interesting things he has to say about phonetic constitution, he does not pursue that exoticism of Caribbean fast bowler names (Curtly, Courtney, Ambrose) that causes old buffers to call the exotic "common", nor the ducal allusiveness of the English haut ton whereby the young sir becomes Tarquin and his little brother Lionel, nor yet the dottier extremities of those driven so crazy by fame that they call themselves 2Pac and their children Tiger Lily.

But this is a book about the quotidian and its durability over the past century. It speaks comfortable as well as plain words about the steadiness and the contained novelty of culture. Its own steadiness builds a redoubt against the inanition of theory and the crassness of power-spotting that presently fill the notebooks defining culture.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Culture Change

Author - Stanley Lieberson
ISBN - 0 300 08385 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 334

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