To Change or Not to Change: What’s in a Surname?

Michelle Togut

Michelle Togut resides in North Carolina with her husband and pets. She has worked as an adjunct professor of history, contributor and writer, and small-firm attorney, among other things. These days, she's trying to sell real estate. For fun, she reads political blogs of all persuasions, practices yoga, drinks wine, hikes, reads, and volunteers for a local animal rescue.

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146 Responses

  1. Mo says:

    A lot of name keeping or changing is cultural, unrelated to how one views women. In Muslim countries, people do not change their names when they get married. Not because of feminism or anything like that, but because it’s convention. My mom didn’t change her name until after they moved to the US and realized that it made things easier when signing me up for school an the like.Report

    • Mo in reply to Mo says:

      I think my indifference to whether or not my wife changed her name* made her more willing to take my name. It wasn’t something that I was imposing on her, rather it was something she was choosing to do. We also discussed making up a third name.

      * Which was because I knew tons of women back in Egypt that never had, so I didn’t careReport

  2. Anne says:

    As some of you know I just got married last July for the first time at forty..mumble mumble years old. I really had a hard time deciding what to do. I really wanted to keep my name because…well damn it its mine! Also I am known professionally by my name and have publications and everyone knows me that way. It was very important to my husband that I take his name for various reasons. He has four children and wanted all of us to be one family and to him part of that is sharing a name. My solution was to keep my name professionally I changed my surname on the marriage licence to my middle name and took his last name. I have yet to actually go through the hassle of changing SSN and credit cards and everything else. People who have known me for a long time still call me by my surname and when we meet new people I am introduced by his surname. So I guess I am still on the fence sort of but it works for us.Report

  3. Morat20 says:

    My wife kept her last name. She went back and forth on it, but decided to keep it. I didn’t really care. (My son — technically step-son, he was about five when we got married — has the same last name as her).

    I am routinely referred to as Mister [Wife’s Last Name], since a giant chunk of the bills, accounts, and whatnot happen to be in her name. (The vet, for instance, has us down under her name).

    The assumption we should have the same last name is a bit trying at time, but nobody in either of our families really cared. Her sister thought it was odd, but that’s it.

    Another couple I know kept their last names upon marriage, but replaced their middle name’s with their spouse’s last name.

    The woman was able to do so quickly at the DPS/DMV. The man, on the other hand, was refused and told he had to have a judge do it. When he pointed out his wife had just done that thing they were told that was “different”.

    It had a happy ending. He lived in Austin at the time, his state senator happened to be in, and the DMV was kept open 45 minutes past closing on a Friday specifically so that his name would get changed.

    His state senator took 20 minutes to check the law, concluded it was perfectly legal — Texas had replaced ‘wife’ with ‘spouse’ in pretty much all marriage laws specifically for that sort of reason in the 90s, which was strangely progressive of us. 🙂 Then the head of the DMV (or DPS, I can’t ever remember which we have) called the office in question and informed them they would stay open until my friend got there, process his name change, and inform their coworkers as to the actual law.

    The Senator had my friend’s vote from then on. 🙂Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Morat20 says:

      Constituent service at its finest.Report

    • Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

      daamn. looking up the actual law? rofl. I am impressed.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        It helped that my friend had:

        1) First posted to a message board filled with, well, geeks.
        2) Who then looked up Texas law.
        3) Then cited it chapter and verse to him.
        4) Who cited it to the Senator’s office.
        5) Who said “Thanks. We’ll double check that and, if correct, contact first the office in question and escalate if necessary. Can you give us a few minutes?”
        6) Who called back and said “Well, you are correct on the law. We contacted the office, when they were uncooperative we contacted the man who runs the DPS, and can you get there now? They will hold the office open for you”

        The internet is a wonderful place, and sometimes it’s useful. 🙂Report

  4. James Hanley says:

    A name certainly is a part of one’s identity, but the really relevant question is how much of one’s identity is bound up in the name. My wife and I discussed this issue when we got married two decades ago, considering her keeping her own name, me taking her name, creating a new name we would share separately from our families, and we finally agreed that she’d take my last name because it would be easier to deal with our relatively old-fashioned parents–purely path of least resistance for us. Which means, I think, that her identity encapsulated a whole lot more than just her name. And yet I’m sure to a considerable extent she does still consider herself a de Boer. But also a van Dien, her mother’s maiden name. Just as while part of my identity is obviously Hanley, I also think of myself as a Wulliman, and a Rohrer, and even in part a Sprunger because I’m descended from that family that emigrated to American 140 or so years ago. But one of my names also is the number I was assigned as a bike messenger, because that time of my life was so important in shaping my identity today, that I still think of myself as that number, with pride.

    The difficulty for all of us is understanding how others can so wildly different from us. I struggle to imagine what it must be like to have a particular name be such an overwhelmingly important part of one’s identity, but I have no doubt there are countless others who can’t fathom how I could see my surname as such a miniscule part of my own identity.Report

    • rexknobus in reply to James Hanley says:

      I wonder what it means to have almost no emotional connection to one’s name. First wife adopted my surname, though I offered to adopt hers. Second wife didn’t (we lived together 18 years before becoming official, so it obviously didn’t mean much). “Rexknobus” is a childhood nickname; I use my birth name day-to-day without much thought. But when I write a book, I use a pseudonym. That pseudonym actually takes on a bit of his own identity in web sites and publicity material. No lies, but a different slant on the same bio.

      So why did I grow up completely unattached to my own name? No idea. It drives my wife crazy when she gets mail addressed to “Femrex Rexknobus” as opposed to her own surname. And it doesn’t register to at all to me when I’m addressed as “Mr. Femrex.”Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

      For those who care about genealogy, and I do, the names of our ancestors mean as much as our own own. But it’s not always our own family names: my own middle name is taken from the last name of my grandfather’s first sergeant in WW1, a great hero and friend of the family.

      My son has two middle names. One of them is the name of the family who took in my orphaned grandfather.Report

      • rexknobus in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I can certainly see the genealogy thing — I’m a mutt from a passle of mutts, so it didn’t take hold. I don’t mean to disparage my ancestry — as far as I know most were good folk, just not well-bred. It probably would have helped if somebody could have pointed out a spectacularly illustrious ancestor to me, but then again, maybe not. Go back ten generations and we all have over a thousand blood relations. Lots of possibilities for kings/philosophers/thugs in a group that large. I like the story of your grandfather’s name. Cool. Given a choice, my mom probably would have named me after Errol Flynn. She had some serious hots for Errol Flynn. Dad wouldn’t have permitted it — whew — I’m glad I didn’t have to spend my life trying to live up to that one!Report

      • Anne in reply to BlaiseP says:

        My MIL is real into genealogy apparently one of my husband’s ancestors was killed by William WallaceReport

  5. Murali says:

    I’ve heard that some progressive couples hyphenate. I know hyphenating is not a long term solution (after n generations of hyphenating you can have up to 2n hyphens in your surname)

    Also agree with Mo about the lack of strict connection between surname changing mores and feminism. Traditional Muslim families are not necessarily the most the gender equal of institutions. Neither are traditional indian families for that matter.

    What weirds me out is the way in which it is simply assumed that everyone keeps surnames instead of patronyms.Report

    • Kim in reply to Murali says:

      you should see russia! It’s why russian novels are so damn hard to follow (or at least one reason). The main character has so, many, valid names.Report

    • Brooke Taylor in reply to Murali says:

      It always seemed to me like patronyms gave an extended family less of a sense of “family” in the way a surname does. But the practice of changing a woman’s name when she marries essentially wipes out public recognition of her lineage too. As long as we only use a personal name and a single family name, there isn’t a good answer here.

      To me, it’s interesting that Filipovic sees taking a husband’s name as wiping away her identity, but she doesn’t think twice about the origin of the surname she’s clinging to. At some point in her lineage, some male decided to convert his patronym into a family name, labeling them all as sons of Filip. That could be looked at as anti-feminist as well.Report

      • Kim in reply to Brooke Taylor says:

        the obvious solution is to take a new name, based on both of your current professions.Report

      • Murali in reply to Brooke Taylor says:

        always seemed to me like patronyms gave an extended family less of a sense of “family” in the way a surname does

        Except, that AFAICT, in my culture where we use patronyms extended family systems are stronger than in others which use surnames.

        The problem with surnames is that when surnames become too common, it ceases to be a familial identifier. Part of what keeps extended families connected is naming traditions. For example, if the eldest son is always named after the paternal grandfather and the second after the maternal one, there becomes a strong tendency for names to follow a particular pattern. So, at least traditionally, in Paalgat Brahmin families, you will see lots of Subramaniam-s and Venkataraman-sReport

    • dragonfrog in reply to Murali says:

      The solution here is clearly a combination of the last names that doesn’t add length. Letter-by-letter addition modulo 26 would do it.

      A worked example

      In the Michaels-Prokopchuk marriage we have:
      Convert “Michaels” to numbers -> 13 9 3 8 1 5 12 19
      Convert “Prokopchuk” to numbers -> 16 18 15 11 15 16 3 8 21 11
      Add each corresponding number -> 29 26 18 19 16 21 15 27 21 11
      Take the remainder modulo 26 -> 3 26 18 19 16 21 15 1 21 11
      Convert back to letters, and the couple shall be known henceforth as the “Czospuoauk” family.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Murali says:

      “I know hyphenating is not a long term solution”

      The best line I’ve ever heard on this observation is from my friend Andrew, who said “if everybody did it, given enough generations eventually everyone would have the same last name, but in a different order.”Report

    • James K in reply to Murali says:

      after n generations of hyphenating you can have up to 2n hyphens in your surname

      I think you mean 2^n, the progression would be 2,4,8 …Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    I was going to share my own story and got about halfway through the combox writing of it and realized how INTIMATE this subject of names and identities can be. Not sexually, but personally. Hell, yes, a name is tied up with one’s identity. Inextricably so.

    Hats off to Michelle for finding the courage to share her story publicly. And to everyone else who does too.

    Which reinforces my prejudice that if something is this intimate, it really needs to be a personal decision and individual autonomy is of the essence with it. I can’t decide this for you and I can’t pass judgment on whether you made a good choice with it or not.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    Traditionally, Korean women don’t change their names when they marry. And from what I know of traditional Korean culture (which is completely male-dominated), I’d hypothesize that it’s to remind them that even though they’ve joined their husband’s family, it’s as an outsider.Report

    • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      ayiyiyi. Traditional Korean culture is one of the most egalitarian on earth. I see it in their manga, I see it in how people treat each other.

      Very ageist, but it’s hard to find Asian countries that aren’t.Report

      • Plinko in reply to Kim says:

        I’m reading a great book on Korea right now, but if it’s to be beleived, it’s not even slightly egalitarian.Report

        • Kim in reply to Plinko says:

          What’s the book? I’m getting my sources from someone with many business contacts over there. (also a bit of hasty googling uncovers: Cheondoism) — he mentioned that “farmers” are given equal priority (and higher than non-farmers) regardless of sex. Rather than giving the man the priority, and having his wife get it “because of him”… (the way we do pensions, for example).Report

        • trumwill mobile in reply to Plinko says:

          The TV show Lost suggested it was not very egalitarian, and that show was credible.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Plinko says:

          My wife (who spent the first 20 years of her life there) says the same.Report

  8. Damon says:

    I recall after my marriage, my wife informed me that she was taking a day of vacation to go to the SS office and get all her name changed stuff worked out. I was rather surprised. We had never discussed her changing her name.Report

  9. Will Truman says:

    When I was younger, I hoped my wife would take my name. I married someone who didn’t. It turned out to be a lot less of an issue than I had feared. Perhaps due to her profession, it’s frequently assumed that she kept her name (there is more that goes into a doctor changing her name than others). We have run into no resistance whatsoever.

    This is the very short version of the story. I might make a NaPP post out of the longer version.Report

  10. BlaiseP says:

    I prefer the Spanish custom of name change at marriage. At birth, a boy is given a name, say Juan. This is his nombre. His surname, his apellidos(plural) are the composite of his father’s and mother’s first surname apellidos, say Méndez and Mora. Thus he becomes Juan Méndez Mora. He grows to be a man, Señor Juan Méndez Mora, often you will see it abbreviated for correspondence as Sr. Juan Méndez M.

    Elsewhere, a girl is born, María, who takes her parent’s surnames, becoming María Gonzales Zapatero.

    Juan and María marry. He becomes Juan Méndez Gonzales. Her name does not change. However, when referring to María as the wife of Juan, she becomes Maria Gonzales Zapatero de Méndez

    Much more sensible, for the man to take his wife’s first apellido.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to BlaiseP says:

      If I’ve understood rightly, in the long run, it’s all the fathers’ names that stick around through the generations, and all the mothers’ names that disappear…Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Increasingly, the order is reversed in modern marriages, precisely for this reason. Often, as a gift of courtesy to a family of daughters, a groom will reverse the order of his apellidos to carry his wife’s family name forward.Report

    • Sky in reply to BlaiseP says:

      This Spanish convention, while elegant, makes life exceedingly difficult for American divorce attorneys.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Sky says:

        I’ve seen what happens in such cases. The ex-wife’s name remains unchanged, as I have said. The ex-husband reverts to his former name. Knowing Americans are kinda stupid about all this, Spanish people will take on the American form, but in practical terms, it’s no big deal.Report

  11. Plinko says:

    I always said I did not want any woman to take my surname and thought I might be interested in taking her name, depending on if it went well the the first. It’s short and sharp and doesn’t go well with a lot of first names, it rhymes with a major curse word and having such a last name I would not wish on any child.

    So, when I married Mrs. P., she kept her last name – she was never enthused about changing it. Hers is one of those last names that’s also a common male given name, so I decided to keep mine. Having “two first names” is always a little weird.

    Living in super exurb of Atlanta, Georgia, it’s kind of annoying that having different last names arouses constant suspicions that we’re fibbing when we say we’re married. I nearly threw the records employee out of the hospital room when she demanded proof of marriage to fill out baby girl’s birth certificate before she’d check that we were married only because we did not share a last name. It’s a freaking public state record, making me drive home and dig it out first remains one of those things I’m always gonna have a chip on my shoulder about.

    Of course, baby girl has my surname. I’d get pretty angry with anyone that suggested it should be otherwise. I get cranky when people assume she has her mom’s name. It’s a little irrational, I know. If we were to be blessed with a son someday, we’d like him to have her surname, but not sure if we want to make siblings endure the questioning of why they have different last names.Report

    • trumwill mobile in reply to Plinko says:

      The only place we’ve gotten any flack is from credit card companies and bills in her name. They become a lot more cooperative if I introduce myself as Will Himmelreich than if I say my name is Will Truman (even if I introduce myself as her husband).

      But I haven’t lived is the south since I was married.

      I actually offered my wife the surname of our second if it’s another girl. She declined for the reason you allude to. If I were drawing a system from scratch, it would be songs taking dad’s name and daughters mom’s. I don’t want to be the only Truman in the real world family though for concern that people will think I’m the stepdad which I don’t want on an emotional level but also has logistical implications.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Plinko says:

      [H]aving such a last name I would not wish on any child….Of course, baby girl has my surname. I’d get pretty angry with anyone that suggested it should be otherwise.


  12. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Moreover, some 50 percent of Americans believe women should be required by law to take their husband’s last name.

    That… that broke my brain.

    I cannot believe that this is accurate, it seems wildly out of proportion. I realize that as a California boy I’m exposed to all sorts of things the rest of the country thinks makes us freaks and oddballs, but this is a huge number.

    20% I can see. 20% believe all sorts of nutty things. 50%? Really?Report

  13. Just Me says:

    To counter “centuries of servitude and inequality,” Filipovic suggests that, at the very least, any kids be given the woman’s surname. If it’s important to the couple that their family share a last name, it should be hers; or the couple can make up a new one. Filipovic acknowledges that asking men to take their wives’ names might seem unfair to men but, since they suffer from neither women’s sense of “psychological impermanence,” nor “the shadow of several thousand years of gender-based discrimination, ” the sacrifice is theirs to make.

    I am obviously just not a feminist. Statements like this just make me bang my head on my keyboard. Once again I must just not be the right kind of woman to understand that I suffer from a woman’s sense of psychological impermanence and the shadow of several thousand years of gender-based discrimination. I guess growing up I had too many strong female role models, that must be why I don’t suffer so.

    I think I fall in the path of least resistance on this one. I have no problem taking my husband’s last name, in fact I probably would prefer it. I don’t think I would feel that I was giving up part of myself, my name is not my identity. But that’s just me.Report

  14. RTod says:

    “Moreover, some 50 percent of Americans believe women should be required by law to take their husband’s last name.”

    I find this shocking. Completely, utterly shocking. I mean, I get someone hearing the arguments for keeping your surname and saying, “I’m not buying it.” But to go the extra step and think you need to keep other people from doing it by force of law? And HALF of Americans thinking that??? Good lord, I find that bizarre.

    As to my own situation, it was an active discussion in my house – both when we were married and when our first boy was on his way. My wife is one of three sisters with no brothers. One of her sisters is gay and she wasn’t sure if that sister would ever choose to adopt; the other sister is very much a traditionalist and there was no doubt if married would take the husband’s name. (Indeed,when sending packages and card to my wife the traditional sister address them to Mrs. Kelly.) Because of this, my wife felt a strong urge to carry on her last name on behalf of her family, and as such we have different last names.

    When our first child was due, I very much wanted him or to be a Kelly, but had just assumed that the kid would take her last name by default. However, my wife made an unexpected pitch.

    “We have different last names, and so over the years people who don’t know us well might not know our history. There will never be any doubt to casual observers that our kid will be mine, but the last name might make people assume it’s not yours. So I say whatever sex it is, its’s a Kelly.”

    So now we have two boys, each a Kelly. And each shares the same middle name: my wife’s surname.Report

  15. Mike Dwyer says:

    My wife and I are both pretty ‘traditional’ when it comes to the name change. Trying to be a modern man I didn’t just assume and after we got engaged I asked her if she planned to change her name. I think she liked that I didn’t make that assumption but I was relieved when she said that she would be changing it. I will also admit that I didn’t feel like we were really married until her name change was official. We’re never going to have kids together so this was the next best thing to us for representing our life together.

    The women in all of the couples we know changed their names and we often joke about which ones upgraded from their maiden names and which ones downgraded. My wife will tell you that Dwyer was an improvement for her.

    My mom kept her last name after my parents divorced because she thought it would be easier for us at school. In the early 80s it was probably a good call, however my stepmother hated her for it.Report

    • Michelle Togut in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      See, as a stepmom, that’s one thing I never got. Why should you care what name the ex goes by? She’s no less the ex just because she still shares your husband’s last name. You still got the guy.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Michelle Togut says:

        If the name is seen as identity, then it’s seen as the ex still sharing “wife of the guy” identity? Or perhaps seen as hope of getting back together with the guy, and so representing a continuing threat?Report

        • Michelle in reply to James Hanley says:

          Both are plausible explanations. As I mentioned above, I was surprised by the ferocity with which some second wives insist the first should drop his name, even in cases where there are kids involved. Some of it had to do with resentment of the first wife and discomfort with the fact that they weren’t first. But there was a real “how dare she” element to it.Report

          • Michelle in reply to Michelle says:

            Also, in a lot of cases, the first wife made things hell on the stepmom and was constantly demanding the ex’s time, money, and attention. Or she used the stepkids as pawns in an ongoing battle with the ex. So having to share a name with crazy ex grated.Report

    • Troublesome Frog in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      My wife was surprisingly eager to take my name. She tells me that there was an “upgrade” aspect to ditching a last name that she shared with something like 40% of Vietnam, but now she’s stuck with a US top-10 surname. Not sure how much of a win that was.Report

  16. Just Me says:

    I think I want that topper for my cake, except the bride will also be holding a beer and there should be one more kitty and a dog.Report

  17. Kazzy says:

    I gave Zazzy the choice but articulated that I would like us to share a name. Hyphenating the two-names would just overly cumbersome, as my last name is long enough as it is. I would have considered taking her name had she insisted, but she ultimately opted to take mine. I know there was some regret, as she really liked her last name (she took pride in having a last name that started with Z), but she enjoys saying, “Zazzy Kazzy” because of what is signifies.

    Had there been no tradition of the woman adopting the man’s last name, I don’t know if we would have gone down that route necessarily. Had she opted not to take my last name, it wouldn’t have been much of an issue outside of the practical inconvenience that arises from members of the same nuclear family having different last names.Report

  18. Kazzy says:

    “Why do you think that, of all the changes feminism has brought, this particular tradition remains largely intact?”

    To answer this question specifically, I think because a name change is largely a symbolic gesture, so the real world costs of what might have been an anti-feminist tradition aren’t felt strongly enough to urge change in the same way that, say, keeping women out of the workplace did.Report

    • The Cardiff Kook (Roger) in reply to Kazzy says:

      Plus one.

      Speaking of plus one, why don’t we have like buttons on this site? And why does the email notification system garble the shit out of punctuation?Report

  19. Miss Mary says:

    When I was married, my husband took my last name, just as Mr. Noonan did with his new bride. With my current boyfriend, we joke that he would take my last name. I have always been confident in keeping my last name. My ex husband decided to switch because he wanted our family to all be under one name and knew that I would never change mine. I proclaimed that my children would have my last name and would never budge on that either.

    All that being said, as I get older I become less attached to my last name. It is unique and my only brother with the last name will be taking his wife’s name next month, but I do find the idea of taking a man’s last name to be romantic. So maybe… one day… if I ever get married again… I *might consider* the idea.Report

  20. Christopher Carr says:

    Why choose just one?

    All my children have two first names and two last names. As for what goes on various documents, etc., we might as well flip a coin. And who really cares about all that anyways?Report

  21. NewDealer says:

    I had a professor who gave one of her daughter’s her surname. The other daughter got the husband’s surname.

    That is all I have to say on this issue.Report

  22. Patrick Cahalan says:

    My wife’s maiden name is Finnish in origin and everybody pronounced it incorrectly.

    Everyone, of course, pronounces my name “Kal-ah-han” and not “Ka-hay-lan” or “Ka-hal-an” (either of which is acceptable), because people are familiar with the name “Callahan” and their brain swaps the “l” and the “h” for them to fit their expectation. I got used to it 30 years ago and stopped getting annoyed about it about 25 years ago.

    It never occurred to me to presume to have an opinion about whether or not my wife was going to change her name (she did, moving her maiden name to her middle name). She got a PhD under her maiden name, and she likely would have kept the maiden name if she continued in academia, but I think she was generally in favor of having one name for the whole family unit, by default. It possibly didn’t occur to her to ask me to change my name.

    She went to a very liberal women’s college (one of the seven sisters) and I’m given to understand that the whole name thing is a subject of occasional heated discussion on message boards and Facebook and whatnot.

    For the record, this is one of those decisions that I think is the business of precisely two people: the two people getting married.Report

  23. Dave Ruddell says:

    My wife changed her name…except that she didn’t. I don’t know how it works in the rest of the world, but in Ontario you can assume any name you want, just so long as you’re not trying to defraud anyone. So, my wife is Mrs Ruddell on pretty much everything official (including her passport), but legally, she retains her maiden name. I think she would have been okay with a legal name change, except if you do that they issue a new birth certificate. We both found that creepy. Talking to a lot of female friends, I’ve discovered that most who have ‘changed’ their names actually have only assumed the new last name. The re-issued birth certificate is often given as a reason for not legally changing.

    Of course, in Québec you’re forbidden from changing your name at marriage, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish…Report

  24. Matty says:

    I had the following conversation with a good friend at her wedding.

    Me: Congratulations Mrs M-
    Her: No it’s still Doctor B-, the PhD was a lot more work than he isReport

  25. Jeff No-Last-Name says:

    My first wife said she would switch if her husband’s name was simpler than her birth name. Mine was so she switched. My current (and last) wife uses her birth name or the hyphenated name depending on situation (we don’t and won’t have kids so the growth problem is moot). She plans on changing to the hyphenated name full-time soon.

    All her decision only.Report

  26. The Cardiff Kook (Roger) says:

    This may explain why Mrs Kook has been so pissed at me all these years.Report

  27. Well, I don’t know what the current norm is amongst the marrying ‘mo set, but the Better Half and I will be keeping our original names.

    As for the kids, they have my last name (his side of the family has lots of kids with that name, whereas my side only has our two with mine), but have his last name as a second middle name.Report

  28. Rod Engelsman says:

    Well, thirty years ago out on the conservative Great Plains it wasn’t even really discussed, just assumed, so my wife changed her name. It wasn’t even a discussion. If we were just getting together and thinking of marrying now, I’m sure it would at least be discussed. My guess is she would keep it since she shared a family name with a dead president, though not one of great distinction.

    If I was in the position to pull a Napoleon*, I would decree it to go something like the Spanish convention that Blaise described, only with a twist. Kids get a chosen first name and an inherited surname. Then upon marriage Andy Bright and Cathy Doe would choose/devise a name for their family unit, hopefully something meaningful to them, that would become their middle name. So if they chose, for example, Emris, for a family name, they would become Andy Emris Bright and Cathy Emris Doe and their kids would get names like Frank Emris and Geraldine Emris.

    This scheme has some nice features I think. It’s totally egalitarian and works just as well for same-sex couples as heteros. There’s a name element that unites the members of nuclear family units. Professionals don’t need to worry about name confusion issues that arise from altering a last name at marriage. Genealogical tracing works for BOTH* sexes. If you really wanted to preserve a distinguished family name you could do so I suppose, by officially going with something like Andy Bright B. and Cathy Bright Doe.

    * I have in my possession family genealogy books for both my father’s and mother’s family and my wife’s father’s side. And in each case it basically just traces the Y-chromosome back through the ages and the mothers are just names from nowhere, like their contribution to who I am is a negligible afterthought. Yuck.

    Also, my father’s family book goes back to Holland in 1745 but hits a brick wall because prior to Napoleon decreeing elsewise (at least I think he was the one), Dutch names followed a convention similar to the Scandinavians where your name consisted of a chosen first name combined with your father’s first name. That and spotty records due to burnt-down churches, being the main repository for what we would now call vital records, make further research very difficult.Report

    • trumwill mobile in reply to Rod Engelsman says:

      Sons get their fathers’ names, daughters’ their mother’s, and household names are hyphenated. That’s my solution.Report

      • Rod Engelsman in reply to trumwill mobile says:

        Like Y-chromosomes and mitochondria? And what exactly is a household name? Are you suggesting that, per my example, Andy Bright and Cathy Doe would become Andy Doe-Bright and Cathy Bright-Doe? And then the kids would be Frank Bright and Geraldine Doe? Or something else? If I’m reading you right (and I’m probably not) it looks like you could have a nuclear family of four and everyone has a different last name.

        Ultimately I think people should just feel free to do what makes them happy this way, but since I have a problem-solving, engineering bent to my personality I felt like sharing my weird ideas.Report

      • Plinko in reply to trumwill mobile says:

        I prefer sons with mother’s names and daughters with the father’s name, myself.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to trumwill mobile says:

        Remember upthread when I said this was the business of the two people involved?

        Still that.Report

        • Rod Engelsman in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          Oh, sure, absolutely. It’s just that the inherited convention is one of those things that’s evolutionary and path-dependent and steeped in tradition. It’s also explicitly patriarchal and is based on certain assumptions about family structures (exclusively hetero) that are falling by the wayside before our eyes.

          With women rightfully asserting their equality with men and same-sex marriages set to become a normal sort of thing, it’s apparent that the existing basic naming structure doesn’t really work all that well. It forces people to make arbitrary choices (wife changes or not; husband changes or not; kids get hers or kids get his; hyphenation, munging, etc.) all of which have upsides and downsides.

          Since the problem really is in the basic structure (given name; arbitrary and optional middle name; surname), I put on my sci-fi hat and thought, How might you do this if you were starting from scratch with modern assumptions of spousal equality? What do you want names to do? What do you want them to mean? What information should the system seek to convey?

          While it’s all fine and dandy to take a libertarianish attitude about all this–and I don’t particularly disagree in principle–the fact is that conventions of this sort have a certain power of social inertia. The Western patriarchal convention has held sway, depending on country, for several hundred years now. I mean, it’s imbedded in the structure of about a million databases for instance. Absent the dictatorial powers of a Napoleon, I don’t know if it’s possible to actually design the new paradigm but it seems worth talking about. Besides, this kind of speculation makes me happy. It’s interesting.Report