What’s in a Name? Breaking and Making Surname Traditions

As someone with an unusual name, I’m fascinated by interesting naming traditions. Indonesia, for example, has extremely diverse naming cultures. In Java, it’s common for people to have just a single name. In Bali, children get given a name depending on the order in which they were born. Among members of the Sikh religion, upon being initiated or baptised, men take the surname Singh and women take the surname Kaur.

When it comes to surnames and gender, the Western patrilineal surname tradition has been breaking down for a while now. During Henry VIII’s time, children were required by law to take their father’s name, and the tradition of women taking their husbands’ names traces back to as early as the 11th century, where under the legal concept of coverture a husband and wife are one legal entity. However, since the emergence of women’s rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more women are keeping their own names. With the exception of a slight dip in the 1980s, the trend away from traditional naming conventions has been pretty consistent – but what are we moving towards?

In lieu of women taking men’s surnames, a number of alternatives have emerged. In my family alone there are women who have kept their surnames, adopted a double-barrelled surname, and taken their husband’s surname whilst also turning their original surname into a middle name.

Years ago I made a friend who had her mother’s surname instead of her father’s. But when I asked why, she explained that her father’s surname is a euphemism for the word prostitute

Children complicate things further, although a lot of people still simply follow tradition. Even where a mother has kept her surname at marriage, children often take their father’s surname by default. New naming conventions are starting to crop up, though. My brother’s first name, Fletcher, is actually our mum’s maiden name; a unique way of carrying on both surnames. While I appreciate that this wouldn’t work for all surnames, my great-great-grandfather’s name was legitimately Lodwick Lodwick, so don’t be too quick to rule this option out!

Some kids end up with double-barrelled names which, while equitable, can be a bit cumbersome. What happens when someone with a double-barrelled surname marries someone else with a double-barrelled surname? Do they squish them all together in a four-name nightmare, or do they make the hard choice their parents didn’t and sacrifice a name (or three)?

Another option bucking tradition is children taking their mother’s name. Years ago I made a friend who had her mother’s surname instead of her father’s. But when I asked why, she explained that her father’s surname is a euphemism for the word prostitute, and her mum didn’t want her to be teased.

More recently I’ve made a friend whose family took a egalitarian route. Odd-numbered children took one parent’s surname, and even-numbered children took the other’s. In a family with four children, each parent had their name taken as a surname by two children, and as a second middle name by the other two. Although this situation caused some confusion at school as to who was whose sibling, the kids liked it so much that one, when it came time, adopted it themselves.

My partner (who comes from a family of all boys) and I (three girls and a boy) have talked about a similar system where any boys we have get my name, and any girls we have get his name, compensating for the lack of women in his generation and the few male Lodwicks in mine. Apart from the fact that we both like our own names and aren’t fazed about having two names in our family, this way our surnames have an equal chance of being passed on. I also like the idea of starting a new family tradition.

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Most examples of going against the grain of surname traditions involve change, compromise and creativity. Discussion and negotiation are part and parcel of being in a relationship, and one group of people I was particularly interested to hear from when it came to deciding on surnames was heterosexual men. So, I asked them, would you take your partner’s name?

I thought this was such a fascinating observation: that taking a woman’s name could potentially make you seem more masculine

Several of my male friends gave a firm “no”. Nor, they elaborated, would they expect their partner to change their name. Some followed this up with the point that, having worked so hard to establish a name for themselves in their chosen field, why should anyone have to change their name? (Although of course it’s worth noting that it’s no longer the middle ages, and men don’t really “have to” change their names, unlike women historically did.) One man in academia said he would be very reluctant to change his surname because its uniqueness makes his work easier to find and more memorable. If he had a more common name, however, he said he’d consider it.

In fact, following on from the idea of names being part of one’s individual brand, a couple of my friends said that if their partner had a “cool” last name they’d be likelier to change theirs. One man gave an example of a woman he knew with a more “Alpha-Protagonist” name than his and said he would adopt her name without hesitation. I thought this was such a fascinating observation: that taking a woman’s name could potentially make you seem more masculine. Another man had foregone his wife’s “cool” last name and kept his name in memory of his dad.

For some men, a sense of tradition meant that they would not only keep their last name but also insist that their children take it. They expressed concern about disappointing their own fathers and encountering backlash from their families. One man told me that, as the eldest child, he feels a responsibility for carrying on the name, despite the fact that he is one of four brothers and only has nephews – all with the same surname. Although perhaps not always overt, the idea that men are responsible for carrying on surnames still seems to be pervasive. One woman told me that her father, who had had no sons, asked her and her sister to keep their names to help the name survive. This all ties into the (erroneous) idea that family trees are more difficult to trace and names might die out without patrilineal naming.

One man said if it was what his partner wanted, he would take her name, but would like to keep his surname as a middle name – not unlike my aunty. Another friend said he would take his partner’s name because he recognised that, as an academic, her name was more important to her career than his. In an outlying example, I was told about a man who had already taken his wife’s name because he hated his own family so much he wanted to join another.

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So a man taking his wife’s name is not unheard-of. However, in an increasingly name-equitable and individualistic society, where people are getting married long after their careers (and social media profiles) have been established, I think that it’s pretty incongruous to ask men to take on someone else’s name. The solution to sexist patrilineal surname traditions obviously isn’t by blanket-introducing matrilineal surname traditions, but there is a lot more room now for creativity. Personally I have a soft spot for amalgamated names, where you take elements of each surname to create a new name, and I have even heard about a couple who picked an entirely new name for their new family.

You never know, you might be the one to pioneer a whole new tradition

It’s taken centuries to overcome bad conventions, such as women being unable to own property independently of men and even being considered the property of men. In a symbolic way, women choosing to keep their own names after marriage is breaking down the final barriers of being considered individuals in their own right. So when you’re getting married and you’re thinking about what your spouse’s name is going to be, and what your children’s names will be, maybe take the opportunity to also have a think about your own surname and what it means to you. You never know, you might be the one to pioneer a whole new tradition.

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