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 uproariously.

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Brut’s Hideaway

I knew 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 Madonna or Eminem. 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
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
Money changer
Reader of poetry
Metal worker
Personal traits
and other
Tall person
Beautiful friend
Lame man
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 2010 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.

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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 2010 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, Wilson, Martinez, and Anderson. Assuming the same ratio today, a random selection of the population should yield about 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

(Enter the numbers and click "Total")

 Do you know anyone
with the surname...
of people
Click for
20 times "Total" is 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... people you know who know you.

Start by counting all your acquaintances who have the surname of Smith... excluding YOUR immediate family.  Think long and hard, reviewing all aspects of your life, including work, home, social functions, neighbors, and secret affairs.  If you know a Smith family and all of the family knows you, count them all.  Record the tally.  Then do the same for the other eleven surnames (Again, not your close relatives). Use the table here if you like.

Add up the twelve 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 who’s 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.

I woman I know, 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 Smithski-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 Smithski-Jones. So much for the Huntingtons, eh?.

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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).
Example: Pros: Cons:
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.

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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

Option Examples Comment
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 Tom Hayden.

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

Example...  Explanation

  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 Ian Fleming’s 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 maximum.)

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 Jughead Jr.

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.

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