05 February 2013

Reflections On Names

Should you change your name when you marry, as I did (from Willeke to Oh-Willeke)? Should you do what one of my assistants did and take as your last name your birth name, then a space, then your spouse's hyphenated name? I'm curious what my children who share that hypenated name will do. Both my son and my daughter have mentioned the possibility of ditching their hypenated names when (and if) they marry. Their long hyphenated surname and double barrelled Korean middle names were important reasons that we chose short, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, gender unambiguous first names for our children.

who didn't take her husband's name, discusses the issue at the Huffington Post in a column worth reading.

The main downside of a hyphenated name during a stable marriage, is that socially inept computer programmers for large companies and institutions everywhere make it impossible to put a correctly punctuated name in their systems. My name routinely shows up run all together, with an apostrophe (even college graduates often don't know what the word "hyphen" means), or with a space and no puctuation. The article aptly sums up the struggles involved. (Then again, the first time I ordered a business card for my solo practice of law, they got my last name right, but misspelled "Andrew". Since then the same thing has happened at least one other time at a different business card company. Go figure.)

Then again, it is very convenient for everyone in the family, parents and children alike to have the same last name. A hypenated name is more memorable (always a marketing plus), especially for men (although you do have to develop a spiel to explain it to people), and it makes it much easier to get an e-mail address that is your name or to be found in a google search. In my case, moving up in the alphabet from W to O has been delightful. I never knew how bad I had it until I moved up the ranks.

The hard parts are not so much having the name itself, whatever it turns out to be, because you get used to it. It is the transitions - taking it, and, if a relationship ends, thinking about whether or not to keep it. The younger you are when you marry, the easier the initial transition is for you. Keeping a "professional name" isn't an issue when you have not yet established yourself in a profession. But, once you've invested a couple of decades of personal contacts, your children's names, and all of your professional life in a name, the decision is far harder.

Claudia has struggled with her choice mostly because she is thirty, old enough to have established a professional identity, but not so old that she is all that deeply vested in it.  She describes the options:
[T]here are many last name options out there for brides-to-be (exasperating my struggle):
· Happily change last name to husband's name [ed. the Anglo-American common law norm considered to be mandatory by most until relatively recently.]
· Keep maiden name [ed. this is the norm in Spain and Korea]
· Hyphenate both names [ed. this is what my wife and I did when we married.]
· Keep maiden name professionally but change it legally (Katy Perry legally became Mrs. Brand, Jennifer Garner is legally Mrs. Affleck, even Demi Moore legally took Kutcher)[ed. the construction Mrs. Affleck, for example, isn't necessarily incorrect even if the wife retained her maiden name; etiquette diehards would insist that Mrs. Affleck to address the wife of Ben Affleck is a shortened version of "Mrs. Ben Affleck", not "Mrs. Jennifer Affleck."]
· Make maiden name new middle name and take husband's as last name [ed. this is what my mother did.]
· I even met a couple that blended their two names together to create a new married name that they both legally changed theirs too. (This seemed kooky, but good for them for thinking outside the box) [ed. my wife and I considered, but ultimately did not choose the option of selecting an entirely new surname for us. My mother's patriline immigrant ancestor who arrived in his teens before many of his siblings wisely chose a fresh surname when he arrived from Finland, because his birth surname had unfortunate connotations in English (it sounded like a synonym for urine in English when spoken), and then convinced his later arriving family members to adopt the surname he had chosen).]
· Change your last name years into the marriage. Who knew, but you can change your name at any time [ed. in Colorado, the case law provides that you can take a new name at common law simply by being addressed by it without objection on a regular basis, so this can even happen by default without any bureaucratic action.]
· Some men take their wife's last name (rare, but it happens)
One of my first clients after I passed the bar exam was a man who changed his name to his wife's last name and then kept it after they were divorced. In his case, the reason for his choice was that it spoofed efforts to link him to his ample secret police file in the country that they had lived in before the emigrated to the United States.

If any of my female readers are considering the same question, I will not for your edification based on my years of practicing law, that almost every woman who does not have the same surname as her husband will inevitably be addressed as if she had frequently enough that she will sometime give up on trying to correct someone in the interests of etiquette and avoiding fuss, so that her first name and her husband's surname will inevitably become at least an alias for her and will probably even show up in her credit record whether she likes it or not.

It is also worth noting that genuine, automatically inherited surnames themselves are not terribly old. In many places they were not fixed until the 19th century following an interim period in which patronymics, matrinymics, and identifiers based on the particular individual's current customary profession, or geographic location with which he was associated, or individualized identifier (e.g. Pliny the Younger, or Alexander the Great) were the norm. Even now, the royal family of the British Commonwealth has to improvise a surname that fits in the plebian system by using appellations like "Harry Wales" which aren't truly surnames in the conventional sense, because bureaucratic systems other than libraries have a very difficult time coping with naming cultures like theirs (the customary surname to use in these situations traditionally changes at a couple of other points in the life of a British Prince).

For what its worth, the bother of having to understand an entirely separate system of naming for the British royalty is still considerably relaxed from the situation of royalty in Japan and when it had a royal family, in Korea, where there were an entire set of honorifics, pronouns, relationship names, and grammatical structures reserved for members of the royal court.

Also, many places that do have surnames now, such as China, Korea, and most of Latin American, at least, have rather botched the job by having a very small number of surnames (in each case about twenty or so) that belong to a very large share of the popuation. This, of course, defeats the main purpose of a surname, which is making it possible to easily distinguish people with the same first name from each other and truly bollocks things up in Korea where marrying someone with the same surname is usually prohibited in a primative form of incest regulation.  In Spain and Portugal, this issue is sometimes overcome by simply having children inherit multiple surnames from their parents (protocal regarding the order is still required) which are all part of a surname but are separated by spaces rather than hyphens. But, while upper class Latin Americans sometimes follow this practice, in the less illustrious ranks, the practice of assigning a single surname of the father to his children is still the norm.

First names aren't inviolate either.  I know many people who somewhere in their childhoods or young adult years ceased to use the name on their birth certificates in lieu of another name entirely: sometimes a middle name, sometimes a varient version of their original name, sometimes a nickname that sticks (particularly in the case of people with "foreign sounding" names or the same name as one or more of their ancestors), sometimes as a stage name or pen name, sometimes to try on a new identity when living in with a new set of people upon entering college or entering the workforce or the military, sometimes following a religious conversion (for example, the man formerly known as Cat Stevens), or sometimes for other reasons that are simply unfathomable (e.g. the man with the stage name "Prince").

Of course, one could go even further. Someone who takes holy orders in the Roman Catholic church takes an entirely new first name, and changes it again should that person be elevated to be the Pope, a practice also associated with the French foreign legion. Likewise, many Native American cultures had a practice of assigning an entirely new name (in a mononame culture where a name is often a descriptive phrase rather than a pure proper noun) to someone upon coming of age that fits the person that they have become.

The mere fact that the subject of names is so involved is itself symptomatic of the fact that we are still in the "Great Adjustment", a transitional phase of cultural ethnogenesis, rather than an equilibrium point in our society.

1 comment:

Jude said...

I decided in 1958 that it was inane to change one's last name at marriage (I was 3). I kept mine through two marriages & two divorces, and I'm glad I did. I was born a Crook & I will die a Crook. As for my three kids, one hyphenated daughter changed her last name to mine at age 18, one took his dad's last name, and one has a hyphenated name which he might change to mine (60/40 chance) now that he's 18. Mrs. never worked for me, even when I was married. Mrs. Crook was my mother, not me.