In my country, tradition dictates that when a couple gets married, the woman takes her husband’s last name, which is also passed on to any children they might have. This has two benefits:
- You can usually refer to a household by name, as in: “let’s invite the Tooks and the Baggins’ for dinner.”
- You can sort of use it to trace your patrilineal ancestry.
However, it has a bunch of problems:
- It’s associated with the now widely-rejected idea that the man is supposed to be the head of the household.
- Not every marriage has a man and a woman anymore.
- Changing your last name may be detrimental in certain careers.
- Over time, it results in fewer and fewer last names, because a surname goes extinct if there are no male children to carry it. This has had a particularly strong impact on China, where people have had names like “Li” or “Zhang” since at least 2,500 years ago, which was before the West even had surnames, let alone settling whether they would be Latin or Greek. Thus, Chinese names have had more time to go extinct, which is why I ended up calling both of my Chinese teachers in school Li lăoshi1.
Some people have taken to hyphenating their last name with that of their spouse. This is probably more egalitarian and mitigates the career damage that comes with a name-change. However, it has the serious issue that it gets unreasonable over multiple generations. For instance, if Alice Abrams and Bob Bell get married and name their daughter “Carol Abrams-Bell,” that works fine. But what happens when Carol marries Frank Delaney-Edwards? They could proceed recursively and adopt the name Abrams-Bell-Delaney-Edwards, but that’s monstrous. Alternately they could follow the Iberian tradition and use the first name from each pair, yielding Abrams-Delaney. But that has the same problem as the traditional system: half the names get lost.
But this problem is inevitable, isn’t it? Everyone has 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and 2n+2 great1-great2…greatn-grandparents. You can’t share a name with all of them. So at some point one parent’s name has to predominate, right?
Wrong. There’s a way for everyone to share a name with both of their parents, their children, and their spouse. Just follow these rules:
When a couple gets married, they invent a new name.
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet get married. When he’s giving the vows, Friar Lawrence asks them “What will be the name of this union?” Together they answer “Starcross.”
This name gets added to their current last names with a hyphen.
“Romeo Montague-Starcross” and “Juliet Capulet-Starcross”
When a couple has children, they inherit only the new name.
This is an alternate reality where Romeo and Juliet act much more sensibly, so they survive and have a child, whom they decide to name after the Friar who married them. The child is thus named “Lawrence Starcross”
This means you won’t share a name with your grandparents, but you already don’t share a name with half of your grandparents, so surnames were never a very meaningful reflection of your family beyond one generation anyway. Furthermore, since each child’s name carries a “reference” to their parent, you get a “linked list” tracing your ancestry matrilineally and patrilineally.
This solution combines the benefits of both the traditional and hyphenated systems. Like the traditional system:
- It preserves household names (even distinguishing between the households of male siblings!)
- It allows tracing ancestry, in a less direct but more complete way.
Like the hyphenated system:
- It’s egalitarian.
- It keeps a reasonable number of different names in usage.
- It doesn’t require anyone to abandon their own family name.
- It signals that you’re the type of person to break with tradition. (Which may or may not be desirable)
Finally, it has several unique benefits:
- It gives people more choice over their own name
- It’s a gender-neutral way of indicating marriage status. Eg. Miss vs. Mrs. indicates whether a woman is married, but there’s no equivalent for men. If this system were widely-adopted, a hyphen would mean married, and no hyphen would mean unmarried.
Assuming that you’re willing to accept that you won’t share a name with one of your 32 great-great-great-great-grandfathers, I can think of three disadvantages:
Hyphenated names are slightly more cumbersome and could be mistaken for a middle name plus a last name when pronounced.
You’d end up with “fad” family names. For instance, you can imagine that many couples who married in the year 2000 might have decided to choose the name “Millennium.” This isn’t necessarily bad, but I don’t personally like the sound of it, and I hope that people would try to choose unique names.
Both partners would “have to” go through the bureaucracy of adding to their name. This would preferably be mitigated by reducing the amount of bureaucracy required, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
I am not married and do not intend to marry anytime soon. However, if I ever do, I hope to convince my partner to go along with this idea. In the unlikely event that this article convinces you and you go along with it, please let me know! My preferred email address can always be found on my résumé.
In Chinese, you address your teacher by their family name + lăoshī (老师), which means “teacher”.↩︎