Saturday, March 7, 2015

What's in a (Sur)name?

Image Courtesy FamilyNameRecords
Family names pop up all over the place, and every once in a while they get me thinking about the associated traditions. Most common in the west, I suppose, is the newly-wed women taking the name of her new husband, with her original last name being termed her "maiden name." Heck, the term "maiden name" is so common, it wasn't until recently that I even made the connection as to the purpose of "maiden" in it (though George R. R. Martin's frequent use of the word is what made me think of it in the first place, to be honest).

Having pondered over the years about how I'd approach the marriage + name-change question, I thought it might be fun to look up various customs from around the world. Well, Google + Wikipedia, to be honest.

(Southern) India: Piecing together some conversations during college and after with various friends and colleagues of Indian origin or ancestry, I know there's an old tradition in some (rural?) parts of southern India where many individuals have only a single name, and use their father's name as their surname when needed. As a goofy example using my own family's names (I'm hesitant to use the actual examples of my Indian friends' names in a public blog post): I, Trevor, have a father Michael whose father is Jonathan. When needing a surname, I'd be Trevor Michael, while my dad would be Michael Jonathan! I'd say this rather resembles the old tradition of stating lineage: Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror!  (I couldn't not use that example there.)

Spanish CustomWikipedia says in Spain and some Spanish-speaking countries observe the practice of given a child two surnames: "usually the father's first surname, and second the mother's first surname". It's sort of like the maiden-name custom, but the second surname is still used on official/legal documents are part of the full name. Again giving priority to the father's line, a name would thus be passed directly from male to male. But there are still plenty of cases where the mother's or even a grandparent's surname is given. It even says that in some cases of an "illegitimate child" (I really dislike that term...), the child might use both mothers' surnames, without the father's. After marriage, though, the woman doesn't usually change her last name

Armenia: I couldn't skip one of my favorite countries and one of the oldest peoples in the world. Though all I have to say on Armenian names are the omnipresent "-yan", "-ian", or "-jan" suffixes, which are old references to the "clan" or "people" one belongs to. But it's also really fun to see non-Armenian people try to pronounce some trickier transliterations of Armenian last names, like Mkhrtschjan. (this trick is to add an "uh" between constants, sort of like Muh-khr-uhts-uchyan)

Oh Jeez, So Many

Gotta love Wikipedia for its abundance of knowledge and my impatience but habit of saving links to come back and peruse later:

  • Arabic Names - I'll be reading this next, as it says Arabs have a long historic naming system...
  • Married & Maiden Names
    • Japan: marriage only recognized if husband & wife share a surname
    • China & Korea: women keep their surnames after marriage, though child takes father's. 
  • Hispanic American Naming Customs
  • Occupational Surnames
    • I had a friend in high school with the last name "Arrowsmith". I wonder what her ancestors did for a living.... ;-)
  • Prefixes - Everyone knows the Spanish "de" to mean "of", but I didn't know:
    • Ó/O' - Old Irish for "grandson" or "descendant" (the apostrophe a mistake during anglicization, confusing Ó for O')
    • Mac/Mc/Mic - literally "son", but effectively meaning "of". My own surname was originally MacAllen back in the day, I'm told.
    • Fitz - "son", of Norman-French origin
    • Al - "the", common in Arabic names

More Please (in the middle, if you will)

Middle names serve a variety of purposes, though I'm not sure whether any of them are of significant importance. I recall the Catholic tradition of adding a name at Confirmation. Often middle names are just gestures of respect or kindness, giving a child the first name of a loved, close, deceased, or otherwise important individual -- my own middle name is for my uncle, my niece's is my father's first name, etc. One has to admit that the middle initial can be a powerful distinction: who can't say that John D. Rockefeller isn't a more badass name, without any clue what in the world the D stands for? And of course Jesus H. Christ has a kick to it, for those who aren't offended by the blaspheme. And my favorite set of middle names: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

A New Name for a New Union

I've often said that I would never be upset if my future wife chose not to take my name. And in fact, I have no idea whether I would do the same were custom reversed or if I were a women. And now I'm wondering what same-sex couples do... But I know it's very common in academia for women to keep their own names, both for consistency with published works as well as for the importance of name recognition.

While I appreciate tradition, I'm not a fan of following it for its own sake, especially when it has a somewhat negative history or purpose. In this case, I feel like the act of a wife taking a husband's name contributes to the notion of patriarchal dominance, even "ownership" of a sort. A girl belongs to her father until he gives her away to her husband. Not to mention the countless worldwide traditions of woman effectively being property of the men in their life -- some extremely disrespectful and discriminatory, while others are merely light-hearted benign observations of an ancient custom.

And of course, I intend this entire blog post to be taken with the mentality of "to each his/her own!". While a father "giving" her daughter away leaves a distaste when taken literally, it's also a beautiful sentiment in reference to her care and protection, essential duties of any honorable man, and I have no qualms about it taken place in weddings at all. I just like to muse on the meaning behind things is all, and think about them in different ways.

But on a final note, I like the idea of a new name. Two people get married, creating a new union, starting a new family. It's kind of a romantic notion that they should select a new surname together, for their new family to use. But then what of lineage and family history? Perhaps double surname like the Spanish custom, or even a hyphenated combination of old and new. Or keep a family name as a middle name, passing it from generation to generation, so one always remembers their roots and their family, while using the surname as a celebration of new unity. Or maybe flip that: newlyweds take a new middle name together, and the last name... whatever makes them happy, I think. :-)

This turned out to be a longer, broader, more rambling post than I intended. Typical. I think I'll solicit thoughts from friends, see what other neat customs, ideas, or examples they can share.