Surnames and Her-names
The History and Future of Last Names
I knew he had a son and a daughter but I didn’t
know their names. Jim Johnson just didn’t talk that much about his family.
Then at a party one day, he informed me that Jamie was getting married.
“Congratulations.” Guessing he meant his daughter, I added,
“So, who’s the lucky groom?”
He smiled and said, “Jamie Johnson.”
I squinted with one eye. “Oh, excuse me. So, who’s
the lucky bride?“
Jim nodded, “My daughter Jamie.”
All I could do was to pretend we understood each other. “Oh,
congratulations. Who’s the lucky groom?”
Again he said, “Jamie Johnson.”
Okay, I thought. Twice around the track was enough. “Your
daughter is going to take the part of the groom?”
“No, no.” He chuckled. He knew he had me going. “My
daughter Jamie Johnson is going to marry a guy named Jamie Johnson.”
“Wow!” I replied shaking my head. “What’s the
chances of that ever happening?”
“One hundred percent, I hope,” Jim said proudly. “He’s
really a nice guy.”
I shook his hand. “That’s great. Just imagine
how easy it will be for their children to remember their mother’s maiden name.”
“Real easy,” he assured me. “Because she plans
on using a hyphenated name of Jamie Johnson-Johnson.” Then he laughed
he was kidding because anybody knows that one Johnson in a name is
enough, except, of course, if you are selling bandages. Still it was
curious to me – two people with the same first and last names marrying.
It would have been odd even if they shared only a last name. But I
suppose with common names these things happen. Surely there must have
been many times a Johnson married a Johnson, a Smith a Smith, or a Garcia a Garcia.
It is even possible love could blind two people who share a less common name.
Take the case of the young daughter of Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt,
Eleanor. In 1905, her rough-rider
uncle, Teddy, gave her away to his
fifth cousin Franklin, son of James and
Sara Delano Roosevelt.
In another case, when they were three in 1935, Robert
B. Parker and Joan H. Parker met for the first time. After they married in 1956, Joan H. gave birth to their
two sons and Robert B. gave the world Spenser,
the famous private detective of novel and TV. Then there was
Edsel Ford’s daughter, Josephine Clay who
married an unrelated Ford, Walter B. Of course, they had an affordable wedding.
In some cases the names match is not perfect, as when a Smyth marries
a Smith, or a Myers marries a Meiers. I know a Harry Kelly who married
a Rosalie Kelley, but that second “e” was not enough for her to call herself
Kelley-Kelly. (And nowadays they could have named their daughter Kellie Kelley-Kelly.)
But such coincidental match-ups are rare in our society. More likely
a girl grows up linking her identity to one surname, her dad’s,
then in adulthood, she is asked by American nuptial tradition to
link it to a completely different one, her boyfriend’s dad’s. Typically
she follows that tradition – or rather did.
Nowadays more and more women are keeping their dad’s last name,
a practice occurring so frequently – a bit more than ten percent of
the time – that people rarely buzz about it behind the bride’s back.
What has changed? Just everything. If a woman can run for governor,
fly a combat jet, or interview a quarterback in the locker room,
then why can’t she keep the name under her high school year book picture?
But such modernism comes with a price. According to one study,
people perceive a woman who does not take her husband’s surname
as more likely to be a feminist, career-oriented, independent, not
a good cook, self-confident, and unattractive. Unattractive? Don’t
most beautiful female movie stars keep their own names after they
wed? (If they are going to beau-tie the knot a few times why give
up the “money” name.) And who knows how many times a woman’s demand
to keep her own name ended a relationship, or even an engagement.
Die-hard chauvinists may wonder what kind of woman would cause
such a ruckus. She must surely not love the man enough to put up with
so minor a thing as being branded as his. After all why should she object to
giving up her father’s father’s name to take her husband’s
father’s name? What is the point of resisting when, essentially,
all surnames are male anyway?
The problem began hundreds of years ago in Europe where we find
the roots for most of our heritage. With the fall of the Roman Empire
the notion that anyone needed more than one name got lost with everything
else in the dark ages. The common men and women of the time had
only their Christian names like William or Mary, or if they were
Jewish, their biblical names like Ezekiel or Micah. Some peasants
had even simpler names like Jack and Jill. If there was any confusion
which Jack or which Jill, a descriptive phrase was added, such as
“Jack the water fetcher,” or “Clumsy Jill.”
A person’s single given name, or appellation, was the primary sounds
or symbol to which one attached one’s ego, not unlike
The importance of that given first name, that “Christian”
name, is still seen today in the traditions of various Christian
churches. Baptismal ceremonies confer a single name on the “baptee”
be that soul a baby or Brobdingnagian. And in the halls of the holy
you can pray to Saint Jerome, confess to Father Francis, nod to
Sister Ann and sing with Brother Arnold. Even some Popes answered to
just a first name…or two.
In those earlier centuries, only the nobles had any reason to take
a sire name, i.e. the name of their sire, or father. That reason,
not surprisingly, had something to do inheritance. The father wanted
to persevere his wealth and title beyond his death and, guess what,
the son wanted to also. Why struggle to make a name for yourself
when Papa has already done the work?
This is a guy thing, of course, owning all the stuff, putting one’s
name on everything – kind of like dogs peeing on trees. It always
was a man thing. From the beginning, when our nearly erect ancestors
found a cave to live in, the man would hold up his club and say,
“This mine. This place Brut’s. We call it Brut’s Hideaway.” His
mate would reply, “Yes, of course, honey, but could you move that
rock from here to over there for me?”
What happened to the Wheelers?
By about the eleventh century, particularly in Venice, commerce was picking
up and traders, merchants and artisans began to congregate in communities
called towns. The towns grew and soon it became necessary for people
to be identified exactly, perhaps with a second name – like the nobles
had. Thus that noble idea of adopting a sire name, or surname, became popular.
As records and finances became more intricate and particular, the
chronicles of human life could no longer be left solely to the Church.
Municipal officials took over and thus that old Egyptian invention
called bureaucracy was rediscovered. Before long most European governments
began to require surnames, not only for tax purposes, but to track
families and felons. That made not only the accountants happy but
also the sons of the new rich and famous.
Where did these surnames come from, you ask? For names like Baker,
Goldsmith, Plowman and Porter and their equivalents in other languages,
the answer is obvious – it came from their day job, or, shall we say, their
all-day-long job. The source for many other family names is less obvious
because like the blobs of a lava lamp, spoken syllables change over time.
Often surnames arose from the first name of the father, either
unchanged such as James, Raymond, Arthur and Thomas, or with a prefix
or suffix as with Ericson, Roberts, McDonald, O’Leary, Willis and
Dixon. In some cases a single root word would evolve into dozens
of varieties of surnames arising in many different languages, as
with the word “major” from the Latin magnus meaning great. From
this arose not only Majors, but also Mayor, Mayors, Mayer, Mayers,
Meyer, Meyers, Meijer, Meijers, Meier, Maier, Maiers, Myer, and
Myers. (But alas, no Majorettes.)
As you might have guessed family names come mostly from appellations,
or descriptive words, invented long ago. They typically referred to
where a man came from, or a description of the place where he lived,
or what he did for a living. In other words, nearly every European
surname in America comes from the four sources shown in the table
below. Three quarters of these were patronymic (i. e., derived
from a male ancestor) or place names.
Four sources of surnames
|Father or ancestor (patronymic)
|Son of Brown
Grandson of Ruarc
Bastard of Gerald
Son of the Mayor
|Place, village or landscape
|From the new town
In the end cottage
Living by the church
From the field of roses
|Occupation, skill or office
Reader of poetry
|Personal traits and other nicknames
Man with the beard
The sources of some names are quite obscure. For example, the name
Brackett means “little hunting dog” but its derivation likely comes
from an old English shop or tavern sign displaying an image of such
a dog. In addition there are many odd names, some with corrupt spellings,
with origins that cannot be identified at all, like the name of Winston the
source of which may be “friend, stone,” or just as likely
from “Wine’s homestead.”
Although the examples in the table are European, nearly every culture’s
surnames arise from those same four sources. However, there are other
devices for naming people. The American Indians were and are fond of
looking to the animals, the sky or distant landscapes for names. And
many of America’s own “love generation” of the 1960’s and 1970’s took
blissful last names like Friendship and Sunshine. For example, the
female actor Barbara Hershey
for a short time was known as Barbara Seagull. But alas, like Ms. Hershey, most of
that generation have reverted to their former names as they became established in the establishment.
It turns out that over the generations some names have dominated,
not because their bearers begot more, but for other, less carnal,
reasons. Smith, for example, is popular because long ago many jobs
required someone with a big hammer to do a lot of “smiting.” Also
very common are the many last names derived from the biblical giants,
like James, Mark and David. In particular, the overwhelming popularity
of the name John in the pre-surname years accounts for the dozens
of derivatives, including, Jones, Johnson, Jackson, McCain, Ivanov,
Jansen, Vanek, Hansen and others.
The table “50 Most Common Surnames
in the United States” lists the 50 most common surnames in the
United States according to the 2000 government census and their
occurrence per 10,000 of population. Also listed are the 1790 census
popularity rankings for the same names. On the whole, in two centuries,
the country’s most common names did not changed all that much. Smith
is still the best name for signing into a hotel anonymously. Johnson
has moved up a notch to second. And the top five at the turn of
the 18th century are still in the top seven.
35 of the original top fifty were still on the list two
centuries later. Of the Fifteen that fell from the list, ten (Stewart,
Rogers, Reed, Cook, Bailey, Richardson, Bennett, Foster, Parker and Russell)
were still in the top 100 while just five (Cole, Stevens, Stone,
Pierce, and Wheeler) fell further. The biggest decline in popularity
was the once popular Wheeler which fell from 45th
to 223th in ranking. Another notable decline can be seen with the name of
Clark, once sixth most common, now merely 25th. My guess
is that the Wheelers and Clarks of the country either produced a lot of
daughters or else chose prosperity over posterity and had few children.
The United States population has grown more than 100 fold since 1790, mostly
due to immigrants. Doesn’t it seem odd that with the flood of aliens
the mix of names in this country did not changed more dramatically?
That Jorgenson or McDonald or Schultz are not in the top ten?
Actually there is no mystery here. Two things happened. First of
all European immigrants very often had their original names Americanized
for convenience, like Schmidt to Smith, or they adopted common American
names to more easily melt in the pot, like Goldstein becoming Greene.
Secondly the introduction of new names seldom occurred in large
enough numbers to join the ranks of the most common, such as Kowalski
which is Polish for Smith.
But change does occur. Nine Latino names (isn’t it peculiar that Latino refers
to Spanish-speaking people outside of Spain instead of Italians living
in Rome?) were so common in the homelands that, with the continuous influx of immigrants,
they became common in the U.S., too. As can be seen in the table
of surnames, Latino names like Garcia, Rodriguez and Martinez have surpassed such starkly
colonial names as Hall, Allen and Lewis in the census – kind of like the taco
becoming more popular than the hot dog.
The Johnson Formula
The fact that a preponderance of people in the country share
so few surnames may at first seem worthless trivia. However it does have one
useful application. Did you ever wonder how many people you know who are
not related to you? I mean personally, by name and on sight – people
you are acquainted with and who know you. Go ahead, reflect, then
make a guess. Is it a two digit number, three digits, or four? When
I asked one friend to guess he estimated he knew several thousands of people,
but I think only those qualifying for campaign matching funds know so many.
There is no accurate way for you to find out for sure exactly how
many people you know because the number is constantly changing,
like your Christmas card list. You meet new people and you forget
others. For example, it is unlikely that you can remember most
of your grade school companions, provided you are not still in grade
school. But there is a way to estimate the number of acquaintances
for the average person using the Johnson Formula. So if you are average,
you are in luck.
According to the 2000
U. S. Census Bureau data, approximately 5% of the population in the United States had the last
names of Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriquez and Wilson. Assuming
the same ratio today (recent surveys show the percentage of these names declining as a percent of the
total, but 5% is close enough for this purpose) a random selection of the population should yield
the same results, roughly one in twenty Americans with one of these surnames. Of course the distribution
of these names may differ in various regions of the country but we will discuss the major regional
exceptions in a moment.
The Johnson Formula
(Calculate how many people you know)
Do you know anyone
with the surname...
Tally of people
|Multiple by 20 to get your Johnson Number
If you have a normal urban life you can use this ratio of 1:20
and the Johnson Formula to estimate the number of people whose eyeball
has met your eyeball.
Start by counting all your acquaintances who have the surname
of Smith (no relatives, please.) Think long and hard, reviewing
all aspects of your life, including work, home, social functions,
neighbors, and secret affairs. Record the tally. Then do
the same for the other nine surnames (Again, no relatives).
Total the ten tallies, multiply by 20 and you get your
Johnson Number, an estimate of the number of people you know
personally. If you are an introvert the answer is probably
less than 400. If you are a politician it is most likely
in the thousands. If you are one of those people who cannot
remember people’s names your Johnson Number gives a good estimate
of the total number of people whose name you can remember.
If you are a Minnesotan do not fret that you are so unpopular – your
Johnson Number may be low because so many northern Europeans
settled in the area. Your score also will not be accurate
if you are a Quaker or live in southern Florida, New York’s
Harlem, or south Texas. In Cajun country you should substitute
the name Broussard for Smith. If you dwell in South Carolina
your Johnson Number may indicate that you are an extrovert,
but that’s only because of all those bloody Englishmen who
settled there long ago.
For most of us cosmopolitans, however, the Johnson Formula
should give a ballpark figure of the number of people who
would recognize our names in an obituary.
To hyphenate or not to hyphenate…
Back to the history of surnames. It is one thing to call the guy
who makes bread Henry Baker, quite another to call his wife Sarah
Baker (unless she too has flours in her hair.) The historical transformation
from women having a single name like Hillary to having several like
Hillary Rodham Clinton did not happen because those Renaissance
accountants and tax collectors needed to identify the wives of men,
but because women were more property than people – because people
could vote and they could not.
From pope to priest, baron to banker, soldier to sailor, merchant
to miner, scholar to smith, it was a man’s world. The surname followed
these occupations and not those of seamstress, widow, wash woman
or even dame or baroness. Subsequent generations in various countries
added the prefix or suffix indicating “son of” as in Johnson, Swensen,
McNair, Malenkov, MacMillan, Sobczak, and O’Keefe, but nothing like
Annesdaughter, Maryslass, or Bethsmaiden.
From the time of the founding of the first cave-stead the issue
of who will rule, and who will own whom, was decided in favor of
men in the court of brawn. All appeals by women through the ages
had been turned down until the mid-nineteenth century. It was then
that Lucy Stoner
and other radical feminists pressed not only for
women’s rights but for the odd notion that women need not change
their surname when they married. The movement has taken a century
to gain momentum but now the her-name is gaining on the surname.
Unfortunately, new her-names are just old surnames.
True, not all women are demanding complete equality when it comes
to married names. Why? Because of tradition. Because he likes to
win more than she. Because she gets to name the kids. Whatever reason,
however, many women are opting for a half-way measure. They are
increasingly deciding to save their birth name as a middle name.
The idea for a middle name is in fact an old British custom. Like
surnames it began with the English blue bloods in an effort to preserve
the maternal name when two landed families merged by marriage and took
the combined name. The custom was quite popular in England in the 18th
and 19th centuries but only slowly found any adoption in the United States.
For example, of the 39
signers of the U.S. constitution in 1787, only three had middle names. But by the
middle of the next century having three names was not uncommon. Even the feminist
leader Elizabeth Cady
Stanton approved the idea after she married hubby Henry in 1840.
Then during the latter part of the 19th century it became fashionable to give a baby
the first name of some cherished or influential relative as a middle name, as did the Edisons
with baby Thomas in honoring
Alva Bradley, founder of
Case Western Reserve
University and friend of father Samuel. By the end of the twentieth century, they were
being given based upon how well they sounded rather than any commemorative
value. Now nearly every newborn gets three names, even though the
middle one will thrive only in electronic ether.
But modern women are rediscovering the original purpose of the middle name.
By attaching it to the their husband’s surname with that innocuous graphical
device known as a hyphen, once again the maternal patronymic (Look! An oxymoron.)
is being salvaged just like in the olden days – at least by the bride. Although
the hyphen is optional today, it does yell out to the world that the first part
of the new cognomen is not merely a woman's middle name, like Beth or Susan,
but rather a part of her female ego inherited from her father – and, hey, maybe
even her mother’s father.
With or without that connective dash, the result is a complex and
apparently sophisticated looking name intended to make both the
groom and bride happy. But it is not always an easy compromise and
hardly a perpetual solution.
My daughter Jamie had thoughts of keeping her surname long before
she met the man she would marry. As it turned out the lucky guy
came from a family that already had used the double name scheme.
Ross’ mother, Sonia, and her two sisters had made a compact that
they would each keep their maiden name, Huntington, in marriage.
Sure enough, when Sonia wedded a Ron Jones they became the Huntington-Jones
family. So Jamie’s fiancé was already a bearer of a hyphenated name.
She decided a cognomen of Jamie Wegryn-Huntington-Jones had more sophistication
than she needed. So when she said “I do,” she didn’t
and kept her bachelorette name. But after the birth of a perfect female child,
however, they both agreed that mommy and daddy should not have different names.
So they took the family name of Wegryn-Jones. So much for the Huntingtons, eh?.
Pick a name, any name
But hyphenation be damned. It is the surname, the whole surname and
nothing but the surname. If women are due absolutely the same rights and
opportunity as men in hiring, pay, legal recourse and sexual pleasure then
what possible reason can be offered to have them forfeit, or subordinate,
a name at the altar they have used all their lives? Both man and woman
should have equal suffering in this matter.
Man and woman, I said? In this day and age, forget gender! The
problem is even more poignant if we consider any combination of
Homo or Hetero sapiens getting married. Which name do they take?
Let us start from the beginning and examine all of the alternatives,
some of which have been, or are being, tried today and the pros
and cons of each.
1 – Traditional way; both take the name of the partner with the higher muscle to fat ratio.
Miss South weds Mr. North and they become Mr. and Mrs. North.
(a) Since the more muscular partner is likely to be more aggressive-dominant this solution will placate him (her) at least on this matter.
(b) Since names are silly little things anyway, the submitting partner (traditionally called the weaker sex) is not really giving up anything. And besides,
(c) this traditional way of naming has worked for centuries. Why mess with it now?
(a) Clearly this tradition is unfair to the fairer sex... excuse me... mate.
(b) And when the divorce is final it is the gentler one alone who has to get
names changed on credit cards, driver’s license, and stationary.
(c) You cannot look up old high school girl friends so easily.
2 – Both take the name of the less dominant partner.
Clark Kent marries Lois Lane and he becomes Clark Lane.
(a) This approach can be viewed a little like affirmative action to correct the mistakes of the past.
(b) It can also healthfully humble the more egocentric partner, restoring a balance to the relationship, perhaps even reducing the incidence of abuse.
(a) The dominant partner may have difficulty saying “My maiden name is…”
(b) All the other guys (gals) will think he (she) is a wimp by agreeing to this arrangement.
(c) It is just as unfair as the traditional way.
(d) After the divorce, the same problems with changing names back will occur as in traditional way, only now it really is a pain in the ass.
3 – The less dominant partner keeps his/her name as a middle, or hyphenated, name with or without the hyphen.
Ima Wise gets hitched to Pat Guy and becomes Ima Wise Guy.
(a) Nowadays this is the trendy and sophisticated approach.
(b) It does preserve a trace of the less dominant partner’s former life.
(c) In the case of a divorce the hyphenated partner can simply use a marking
pen on the old stationary instead of throwing it all out.
(a) The less dominant partner has the hassle of dealing with a long name, like Leslie Hollingsworth-MacGillicuddy.
(b) On the other hand the stronger mate may feel inadequate with a shorter one.
(c) Why should the “maiden” name take to the shadows?
4 – Each partner takes a combined (hyphenated) name.
If Dennis Hanker ties the knot with Debbie Chief they become Mr. and Mrs. Hanker-Chief.
(a) A good compromise.
(b) Both surnames are preserved.
(a) The problem now is which name goes first. The front name dictates phone book listing while the second probably will become the abbreviated version.
(b) What happens in the next generation?
5 – Each partner keeps his or her own birth name.
Regardless of whom Sally Wile takes to the altar, she stays a Wile.
(a) This option is common in Italy and other European countries – a neat, simple approach requiring the least paper work.
Nobody has to get new credit cards, driver licenses, and other such things.
(b) Each partner starts the marriage with the same respect for each other.
(c) After a divorce neither “ex” has to decide
if he or she wants to go back to the nee-name.
(a) Return addressing and other joint communications will take up more space.
(b) Introductions at parties and the ski lodge may require an explanation.
(c) We have a phone book problem here. Two entries or one? If one, which one?
(d) What surname do you give the children?
6 – Each partner prefixes the other name to his or her own (hyphenated or not).
Jack Sprat elopes with Mary Muffet and they become Jack Muffet Sprat and Mary Sprat Muffet.
(a) There is an egalitarian feel to this approach
(b) It gives each devoted partner something of his or her mate’s to carry around at all times.
After a time this approach would be a great aid in genealogy.
(a) It may be very confusing in meeting new people who cannot remember if it is Jack Sprat Muffet or Jack Muffet Sprat.
(b) This approach can produce some unwieldy names as when Theodore Maynard Tomaszewski marries Martha Hannah Hennicott-Weatherspoon.
(c) What surname do you give the children?
7 – The partners blend their names to create a new name.
Bruce Walters jumps the broom with Harvey Martin and they take the blended name of Bruce and Harvey Walmart.
(a) This can be a bonding experience that the two partners will share and treasure right up to their divorce.
(b) New exciting names will evolve as when Conrad marries Donovan to become either Conovan or Donrad, or even Donocon.
(c) No problem with the children’s surname.
(a) Both partners have to give up names of heritage.
(b) Some pairs of names don’t lend themselves to this approach, such as Schwartz and Vanderland, or Bush and Lee.
8 – The partners take on a totally new name.
Honey Cash takes Bunny Check to Gretna Green and they become Honey and Bunny Money.
(a) This is an imaginative approach that allows both people to unite behind
a new name that expresses their mutual perspective on life, such as Sunshine, Lucky, or Screwdegin.
(b) Children will have the same name as the parents.
(a) In place of the abundance of Smiths, Jones, Johnsons and Millers, other weak cognomens would abound, like Peace, Smiles, and Bothus.
(b) After several generations of newly invented names, genealogical studies may become exasperating.
Which approach will dominate our culture? Option 3 seems to be the current
challenger to the traditional American surname game. Option 4 is
also gaining favor. However this naming scheme does get a little
tangled after a few generations. For example,
Frank Lloyd Wright’s
parents were William Cary Wright and Anna Lloyd Jones (Wright).
His mother’s parents were Richard Lloyd Jones and Mary Thomas (Lloyd
Jones). So although the maternal surname of Lloyd survived, Cary,
Jones and Thomas were lost.
Option 2, where both take the name of the less dominant partner,
is the least likely to see much use, although the Prime Minister
of Japan in the 1970s, Kakuei
Tanaka, did adopt his daughter’s husband
as his son so that she would not lose her maiden name. Not getting
married at all is the same as selecting Option 5, so many couples
are already experiencing this approach. However, none of these solutions,
I predict, will find universal acceptance in our culture. We will
probably see every approach tried to some extent in the new century.
Probably the only safe thing that can be said is that more and more
surnames will be her-names.
What will the children think?
Overall, this last name problem for married couples really does
not matter all that much except when breeders are involved. Two
people can play the name game any way they want but when reproduction
happens things get a little more complicated. (Of course child adoption
by partners of any gender combination must be considered also.)
When what used to be company becomes a crowd then ideas like belonging,
identity, and family tend to dictate how couples choose the surname of their children.
Traditional families, of course, have no problem – the children, like the bride,
are labeled as daddy’s. In rare cases the wife’s maiden name might
be preserved at least a generation or two by becoming a first name
for one of the children, as was the case with
Cotton Mather, a renowned
preacher in the 17th century whose mother, Maria, was the daughter
of John and Sarah Cotton. (This approach can yield questionable cognomens,
such as Street Walker or Snow Jobs.) In Pakistan children often get
as their last name the father’s first name. But modern child-rearing
couples in America, those who believe the size of an egg compared
to a sperm is worth something, find these approaches inequitable.
What are they to do? What are the alternatives?
Let us assume that a man and woman decide to marry and keep their
own names as in Option 5 above and they become Mr. Hank Rain and
Mrs. Harriet Shine. Let us further assume that they prefer children
to wealth, and they proceed to breed. Let us say that Mr. Rain and
Ms. Shine have four children, Mary, Murray, Morey, and Carmela. What surname
do they give each offspring? The possibilities are shown in following table.
Options for Children’s Surnames
a) give all the children the father’s surname.
Mary Rain, Murray Rain, Morey Rain, Carmela Rain
Quite stale, and clearly unfair to the bride’s family.
b) give all the children the mother’s maiden name.
Mary Shine, Murray Shine, Morey Shine, Carmela Shine
Equally unfair, but might work for a time in the spirit of affirmative action.
c) give all the children both surnames.
Mary Rain-Shine, Murray Rain-Shine, Morey Rain-Shine, Carmela Rain-Shine
Cruel in the first generation, mind boggling in subsequent generations.
d) give the first child the father’s surname, the next the mother’s, etc.
Mary Rain, Murray Shine, Morey Rain, Carmela Shine
Fair, but may be confusing to the children. It may seem like two separate families.
e) give the boy children the father’s surname, the girls the mother’s.
Mary Shine, Murray Rain, Morey Rain, Carmela Shine
Fair, but will feminize and masculinize certain names over time. Also same problem as d).
f) give the girl children the father’s surname, the boys the mother’s.
Mary Rain, Murray Shine, Morey Shine, Carmela Rain
Fair, and will randomize names with regard to sex. But also same problem as d).
g) give all the children some new name that is a combination of the two parent names.
Mary Shain, Murray Shain, Morey Shain, Carmela Shain, Mary Rine, etc.
Clever, but different names for kids and parents might make the children feel like orphans.
h) give each child a totally new surname.
Mary Drizzle, Murray Fairweather, Morey Haze, Carmela Fogg
Fun and creative. And if they don’t like them, the kids can change their names
when they come of age. Same problem as g).
I am not sure this is a complete list of options, but it does represent most
of what has been tried. The first option is common in Italy and
other European countries where women keep their surname.
Options (d), (e), (f), and (g), where the children have different surnames from each other,
may seem ill advised. But in fact the situation is not so rare today as children of divorcees can quickly
gain other-named siblings along with their new father or mother. The last option (h) is exemplified by
actor Troy O’Donovan Garity, the
son of Jane Fonda and
Anecdotal cases aside, it is difficult to guess the impact of any
of these options on children and the culture. Among traditional
folk, parents experimenting with the less prevalent options may have
an impact on their child’s self perception, worth, belonging and who
knows what. On the other hand, in an unshockable society where family is as
definable as rock music, perhaps surname will not be the link of kith to kin.
e. e. cummings and Symbol Dude
The universe of names for human beings in our Western culture is in turmoil,
particularly with the growing influx of Asians, Arabs and Latinos. The English-dominant
culture of the United States and Canada has survived the influx of
European prefixed names, like those beginning with the Dutch “Van”
and the French “La”. But now the new immigrants, the non-Europeans,
have introduced all sorts of new and odd variations to the traditional
American name with impossible strings of consonants as in Hrcka and Nghyen,
multi-part surnames such as De La Fe, and first names positioned last like Muhammed Afr.
The Los Angeles Times reported in December of 1996 how
non-Anglo names were causing problems for the Social Security Administration’s
computer system in San Bernadino. With wage records going back to
1937, first names like La Rosa or surnames somewhere other than
at the end of a name as in Park Chong Kyu and Carlos Romero Barcelo
were particularly troublesome and threatened millions of future
retirees with loss of benefits.
But immigrants are not the only cause of the decline of traditional
naming conventions. There is the inventive genius of a growing
entertainment population, many taking distinctive names. It seems
any iteration of elements is game for a name. Consider what celebrities
have contributed to the tradition of naming. The following table
lists all of the full-name variations (As well as some other cognomen
oddities) adopted by people of notoriety as their fame name.
Variations in Naming
Vincent Price (actor)... First name and surname
Harriet Beecher Stowe (writer)... First name, middle name, surname
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (artist)... First name, two middle names and surname
(John) Calvin Coolidge (president)... Middle and surname only
Dick Van Dyke (actor)... Two part surname
La Toya Jackson (singer)... Two part first name
Beverly D’Angelo (actor)... Apostrophe in surname
Hildegarde (actor)... Surname only
Madonna (singer)... First name only
Liberace (pianist)... Single invented name
Tom T. Hall (singer)... First name, middle initial, surname
Harry S Truman (president)... Middle initial stands for nothing (no period)
Billy Dee Williams (actor)... Middle initial spelled out
F. Scott Fitzgerald (writer)... Initial initial, middle name, surname
O. Henry (writer)... Initial and surname
B. B. King (singer)... 2 initials and surname
J. R. R. Tolkein (writer)... 3 initials and surname
CCH Pounder (actor)... 3 initials, no periods
Olivia Newton-John (singer)... First name with hyphenated surname
Jan-Michael Vincent (actor)... Hyphenated first name with surname
Pee-Wee Herman (actor)... Hyphenated nickname with surname
Ann-Margret (actor)... Hyphenated first name only
Ice-T (singer)... Hyphenated silly name
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (actor)... >First name, surname, abbreviation
Jill St. John (actor)... Abbreviation in surname
Henry Ford II (industrialist)... First name, surname, Roman numeral
Malcolm X (political activist)... Single letter surname (or is he the 10th Malcolm?)
e. e. cummings (writer)... Full name in lower case
MacKenzie Astin (actor)... Two last names
William James (philosopher)... Two first names
Elton John (singer)... First and last names reversed
Jim James (musician)... Nickname with its formal name
Tiny Tim (singer)... Adjective and first name
Zero Mostel (actor)... Number for a first name
Zsa Zsa Gabor (actor)... Redundant first name
Rip Torn (actor)... Redundant full name
Tommy Tune (dancer)... Great show biz name
Lee Grant (actor)... Great Civil War name
Red Buttons (comedian)... Good use of color
Al Kaline (baseball)... A very basic name
Ice-T (actor)... A pseudonymic tribute to a pseudonymed person, Iceberg Slim
The artist formerly known as Prince (musician)... No name at all
The last entry is silly, of course, but it does represent the ultimate in naming oneself.
The rock star born Prince Roger Nelson
said on one occasion he gave up his popular name “Prince” because he felt enslaved
by it after Warner Brothers trademarked it. Earlier, the artist had told a magazine he stopped
being Prince when he fell in love with his wife Mayte. “Mayte never called me Prince.
She just didn’t use it. Her soul knew.” Whatever the reason, on his 35th birthday
he decided to become “the artist formerly known as Prince” and took
the identity, or “0(+>,” a symbol combination with no pronunciation.
Some fans still call him “Prince,” some use the acronym TAFKAP
and still others refer to him as “Symbol-dude.” Thankfully he has
not changed his name again to “the artist formerly known as ’the
artist formerly known as Prince.’”
In the name of social security
In spite of the example set by the late actor,
Zero Mostel, numbers do not seem
to be popular elements for names, although people have tried to use them. In fiction we all know
James Bond with the code name 007. And TV watchers may recall
Maxwell Smart’s partner, 99,
as well as the former borg in the science fiction Star
Trek: Voyager series known as Seven of Nine. In real life,
T. E. Lawrence
of Arabian fame tried to hide from notoriety as well as end the confusion with
D. H. Lawrence
the writer by using various aliases including his army serial number
which gave Noel Coward
the opening to write him, “Dear 338171, or may I call you 338?”
Back in 1978, Saturday Review ran a story about
Michael Herbert Dengler
who petitioned the state court to change his name to 1069. Mr. Dengler
thought of himself as a unique individual, “a one-member class,”
and wanted a name to match. During his court battles everybody seemed
to enjoy the story, some offering puns about his first name being “Juan.”
But in the State Supreme Court would not grant One Zero Sixtynine his new name.
The cases of Mr. Dengel and Prince echo the psychological need
in all of us to be unique. Fortunately for most of us, the singularity
of our soul is not lost just because our names are not unique. But
I cannot help thinking that there is a logic in the notion that we
should each have a distinguishing name, one nobody else shares with us.
I think when a person gets to be 18, he or she should be required
by law to choose whatever name he or she pleases. If it includes
the father’s surname, fine – as long as it is unique in official records.
The selection of a full legal name would be a personal, yet mandated,
election. Such an event should be part of our cultural tradition,
a baptism of adulthood that endows each person with a distinguishing
label. And as with option 4 in the marriage alternatives above, the official
name would stay with you in sickness and in health, ’til death do you part.
The fact is, we already have such distinguishing designations in
operation. We are all uniquely identified with numbers – for driving,
owning a phone, and buying things without money. In particular we
are all identified by a government issued number; in the United States, a
Social Security Number.
That’s because there is all that tax money to be given to you when you retire,
and all that tax money to be collected from you before you do.
Unfortunately most people dislike these digital handles – maybe because
they look so much like those symbols that caused all that frustration
back in high school math classes. Or maybe they connote the inhumanity
inflicted and endured under the Nazis. Or perhaps most likely people
do not like their unique “number names” because they lack color,
imagery and history. Yes, a few small numbers have character through
association – numbers like 101, 76, and 1001, but none as large as
a U. S. Social Security Number, except, perhaps, the ID 101-76-1001
with its triple imagery of Dalmatians, trombones and Arabian nights.
So why does the United States Social Security Administration use
numbers instead of letters, anyway? It does not do math with them.
The numbers do not designate anything, not age, sex or virtue. And
they do not sort any easier than letters. In fact, letters are more
efficient because there are more of them. Look at license plates – if
they used only numbers they would be wider than some cars.
So what are the advantages of using numbers to identify people?
Well, they are predictably pronounceable, I will admit. And you cannot
make offensive words out of them. But other than that, who needs them?
Let me propose an alternative. Why not have each U. S. citizen
take a Social Security Name instead of a Social Security Number?
This unique, yet user-friendly, string of alphabetic characters
would be a legal name as well, for recording wills and receiving
benefits, for paying taxes and posting bond.
What I propose is that every citizen of the United States must
choose his or her own unique and official Social Security Name.
For many of us blessed with odd names at birth, it could be our
current cognomen. For people like Jim Johnson, a totally new name
would have to be chosen like Jimmy Johnsonski. Or the old name could
take on some modifier to further distinguish it from the other Jim
Johnsons in the system, perhaps by adding a middle name like Juice,
just as long as the new name was unique in the government database.
People would still use other personal names and nicknames in their
daily lives, but the SS Name would be mandated for all legal purposes.
Of course, there would have to be some rules to make this work.
Also we need rules to make it easier for the bureaucrats so they
do not screw up as legend has that they do. Here are my suggested rules:
1. Each name must not duplicate that of any person,
living or deceased, in the Social Security System.
2. Each full name must be made of only the 26 letters
of the English alphabet and no more than 2 spaces (for example,
Juan De la Cruz would have to be changed to Juan De Lacruz, or
Juan Dela Cruz, or Juan Delacruz). No hyphens allowed.
3. The traditional and silly order of last name first,
first name second, second name third, would be maintained until
after the U.S. adopts the metric system. So, for example, Jim
Juice Johnson officially would be “Johnson Jim Juice.”
4. The complete name including spaces must be no
longer than 24 characters. (Sorry, there has to be some predictable
5. The name must present reasonable expectations
for being pronounced. That is, the name Xccbbd Pddnng would not
be acceptable, while Shem Schwartz would be.
6. No abbreviations are allowed within the name except
St as in St. James (without the period). So names like Mr. T,
Dr. No, and Maj. Mistake would not be allowed. Neither would Jake
7. Capitalization of any letter will be irrelevant
and not distinguishing. McNutt will be the same as mcNutt or mcnuTT,
and von Trappe will be the same as Von trappe.
That’s it. You not only get to remember your Social Security designation,
but you also have that warm, prideful confidence that no one else
has your self-chosen name. When you see that unique string of syllables
on the subpoena or hear it over the public address system, you will
know they are referring only to you.
Oh, I forgot to tell you. Since your new Social Security Name will
not prove your identity, the government will need your fingerprints, too.