A friend was recently at a dinner party. It was thrown by an artist and there were intellectual types dotted around the table. After what seemed like hours of the other guests discussing intimidating figures like Chomsky and Wittgenstein, she was relieved when the conversation turned to Rambo. Finally: a chance for her to join in. She started to talk about the gun-toting muscleman as played by Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s action movies, mentioning (a point she was particularly pleased with) that the US government at the time had taken the films seriously, viewing them as a critique by the public of the administration’s foreign policy.

Everyone stared at her.

"Actually," one messy-haired academic eventually drawled, "we were discussing Rimbaud, the 19th century decadent poet."

Yet when she told me this story, it got me thinking. Rimbaud isn’t the only one, not by a long shot. There are, for most of us, hundreds of cultural names we are expected to know something about, but about whom we actually don’t have much of a clue – apart from vaguely recognising the name. Stefan Zweig. Bertrand Russell. Carl Jung. Friedrich Engels. Then there's Bertolt Brecht, Denis Diderot and Michel Foucault. Journalists constantly cite names such as these, as proof of their cultural credentials. Intellectuals just love to drop them into conversation, like a badge of membership to some elite club, tossed onto the tabletop. I decided to listen out for all these names; round them up; and then pluck out the heart of their mysteries. The result is a book that I’ve co-authored, ‘How to Sound Cultured: master the 250 names that intellectuals love to drop into conversation’.

I learnt a few things along the way. When you look into it, it turns out these formidable individuals are usually known mainly for just one thing. For example, all you really need to know about Virginia Woolf is that she employed a stream-of-consciousness technique in her writing. (This basically involves recording what you think, unedited. Oversharing can be the result.)

That he started the anti-consumerism movement – by going and living in a forest by himself – is what Henry David Thoreau was about. And Ayn Rand devoted her life to arguing that governments had no business interfering in the lives of their citizens; they shouldn’t even ask for taxes. All intriguing concepts. And a lot less formidable than many intellectuals would have you believe.

It seems there are two main types of people who drop these names. The first lot are intellectually insecure and cite the names in the mistaken belief that, by association, their own cerebral stock will soar. Ed Milliband is, apparently, in this category. Last summer, at the height of his leadership challenge, he made a point of telling several different interviewers he’d just started reading Thomas Piketty’s 900 page behemoth of a book, ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. (Piketty, incidentally, was the intellectual to name drop last summer. He’s a French professor who believes we are returning to a gap between rich and poor so large that it resembles that in the middle ages. This is because the rich can now invest their money at a higher rate than that at which the economy is growing, and so they are continually pulling away from the rest of us.)

But there is another group who drop these names for a more admirable reason - namely that they feel passionate about a particular intellectual and want to share their enthusiasm with others. Take Russell Brand. He is a committed pacifist, but, rather than speak dryly on the concept, he instead likes to hold forth about Mahatma Gandhi. "He was a very disciplined man," he has noted, "and he said the only thing he hated more than violence was cowardice, so he was prepared to get the shit kicked out of him whenever required. You can’t argue with that.” Wise words from the long-haired motor-mouth. Or consider Boris Johnson. A couple of years back, a pupil at a school asked Boris whether he wanted to become Prime Minister. Boris gave a response that, as well as being surprisingly direct, made a slightly recherché allusion: "If, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough to serve in that office I wouldn’t, of course, say no." (Cincinnatus was a farmer who went on to become a Roman statesman. After he retired, he was called upon to save Rome in 458 BC. In just 16 days, he did indeed save the city from invaders - before stoically returning to his farm and to his plough.)

The tone of both Brand and Johnson is perhaps not entirely free of pretension, but in each case there's a sense of humour at work, and an honest appreciation of the great figures of the past. As a result, you learn something new by the end of their spiel, and may even feel inspired. That, too, is the kind of balance we have aimed for in our book. So, how about some names who, like Gandhi and Cincinnatus, really have stood the test of time and are worth knowing a bit more about? The ones listed below are my personal top ten when it comes to name-dropping at dinner parties.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Recently Caitlin Moran described herself to ‘The New Yorker’ as “half Wollstonecraft”. A pioneer of feminism, Wollstonecraft scandalised English society by having an affair with a married man (even suggesting a menage a trois with his wife) as well as, separately, with another woman. Her most famous work was ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, which had the audacity to claim that women should have equal rights to men. You can imagine the furore this produced at the time. Her daughter was Mary Shelley who wrote ‘Frankenstein’.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

The ultimate conspiracy theorist. Foucault took aim at the government and at scientists in his books. He posited, for example, that the abolition of capital punishment in favour of lengthy prison sentences was no sign of social progress at all. Quite the reverse. For governments only did this knowing that criminals found the prospect of decades in a jail much more terrifying than an instantaneous death before a firing squad. Foucault also argued that AIDS was a disease invented by the government to stigmatise the homosexual community, of which he was a member. In this belief, sadly, he was proved wrong when the disease claimed him at the age of 58.

Anais Nin (1903-1977)

Forget E.L. James and the 125 million copies of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ series that she has shifted. The first great female author of erotica was Anais Nin, whose ‘Diaries’, released in instalments during the mid-twentieth century, broke new ground with their sexual candour. They also contain an extraordinary insight into the many male writers she had affairs with, including John Steinbeck and Lawrence Durrell. Nin was ground-breaking in other ways too, having two husbands simultaneously, neither of whom knew about the other. To sustain the deceit, she carefully kept two cheque books, each displaying a different surname.

David Hume (1711-1776)

One of the leading lights in the Scottish Enlightenment, that movement in the eighteenth century that valued human reason above religious fervour, Hume is perhaps best remembered for one argument above all. Namely that we are born without any ‘innate ideas’ inside us (an upsetting concept to religious minds of the time, who believed that God had imparted a certain understanding to every human soul before birth). A witty man, Hume said the best reason he’d heard for believing in God was when an angry old woman refused to help him out of a bog until Hume admitted He existed.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The founding father of American poetry, Whitman democratised the art of verse, being one of the first to write about topics that appealed to the man in the street. In ‘Leaves of Grass’, he mined his own life for material, believing that the fundamental human experiences are common to all (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he wrote). He also enjoyed a brief affair with the young Oscar Wilde.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

An unhappy man who broke off his engagement to the only woman he ever loved, and all for impenetrable philosophical reasons, Kierkegaard was the father of existentialism, the philosophical movement later made popular by Camus and Sartre. How so? Kierkegaard’s musings insistently addressed the big questions – such as ‘Who are you?’ and ‘How should you live your life?’ – that would preoccupy these French giants a century later.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Smith was a Scottish economist whose book ‘The Wealth of Nations’ didn't only find admirers among his fellow countrymen. Margaret Thatcher used to carry a copy around in her handbag. Why? For Smith’s big idea: that an ‘invisible hand’ guided people to act selfishly - but ultimately in everyone else’s interest, too. For, if people are left to their own devices, free to enrich themselves, a more stable society will result, he posited. His arguments remain the bedrock of any defence of free market economics.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

When he was a baby, Lloyd Wright’s mother adorned his cot with building blocks. She little realised the influence they would have. Lloyd Wright went on to become the most famous modern architect in the world, and, in part, credited his success to those blocks, whose simple shape he forever strove to imitate in his architecture. In particular, his buildings attempted to assimilate their surrounds – he built a house on top of a waterfall for example – and he was a believer in function over form, for example having no walls between kitchens and living rooms so that mothers could see their children as they cooked. Yet for all his successes, Lloyd Wright's life was tainted by tragedy. His beloved mistress was murdered by a disgruntled servant, who then burnt down his home for good measure.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

An Austrian philosopher who, bizarrely enough, attended the same school as Adolf Hitler – before Hitler was expelled for being troublesome, that is. Wittgenstein was born into a rich family but gave all his money away. He also had a theory about language that shocked the world of philosophy. For his great masterpiece ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ declared that language fails us when we discuss the important things in life (such as whether or not God exists). A commonplace observation now, perhaps, but it sent fellow philosophers into a tailspin at the time.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s film ‘Annie Hall’ where a self-important man in a movie queue is showing off his knowledge of McLuhan’s theories. Then an elderly gent appears from nowhere to declare, "You know nothing of my work." It’s McLuhan himself – who, by agreeing to appear in the movie, was clearly an intellectual who didn’t take himself too seriously. As for his work, he was the father of the discipline known as media studies, and is best remembered for his observation that "The medium is the message." What he means by this is a little tricky to extrapolate. But consider this article as an example. McLuhan would say: let's focus not on the actual content of Hubert van den Bergh's article itself. Instead, it's much more interesting to ponder the meaning and repercussions of the fact that you're simply sitting reading a printed article in a newspaper. And he may just have a point.

‘How to Sound Cultured’ by Hubert van den Bergh and Thomas W. Hodgkinson is published by Icon Books this Thursday