Tuesday, May 29, 2007

on surnames;

This was originally an LJ comment; a friend had posted a poll on the matter of surnames, and much conversation ensued. My original rant (which seems more bitter than I had intended);

I've been seriously thinking about this lately because I'm getting married sometime this autumn/winter. It's not a momentous occasion; we're very much in love, and as neither of us have much regard for marriage customs, we're not getting too worked up about it. We're getting married for our own reasons, and we're not too phased by the decision.
But the surname has been a problem. On the one hand, I regard the custom of wives taking their husbands name as barbaric; on the other, the surname I have now is my father's, and I despise my father and would like to have as little to do with him as possible. I've seriously considered adopting my mother's maiden name, or even my mother's mother or my mother's mother's mother's maiden name, but however far you go back, you still just get names that belong to men. The great-grandmother's maiden name is quite fetching, and my mother's is both fetching and Scottish, but still.

I love my partner, and his name is pleasing in sound, metre, meaning and stature...but to make things even more of a mess, it's an Arabic name, and I seriously worry if lily-white me would be exposed to racial profiling if I took it. (He's been known to get it in the neck at airports, and he's barely swarthier than I am.) One other issue is that his name is very rare in the USA and far more common in the UK...and in the UK it's pronounced differently to the way his family say it, so I can't stop myself pronouncing it differently to how they do (none of his living relatives have any connections to Lebanon any more, so I'd maybe bet on me being 'right' :P)

So I've still not settled on an answer. I've considered hybrids of both my father's name and his, and my mother's name and his, but none of roll off the tongue. A hyphenated surname would have five syllables; urgh. He's absolutely willing to take my name if I wish it, but I dislike both the name and the man I got it off, so what on earth would that accomplish? Really, I'd be 100% keen on taking his name, were it not for the political context of that decision. I don't believe that women are just torchbearers for masculinity (you speak of a name that 'connects them to the rest of their family', but I'd question whether the 'family' is an institution worth supporting in that manner. I personally feel no ties to any of my family members excepting my two siblings, one of whom has also toyed with a name-change). I think most people who know me would be very surprised that I'm inclined to abandon my name, but I am. I'd rather choose the name of someone I care for than keep the name of someone who never cared for me.

Really, I feel like it's a messy decision because I'm starting from a total shipwreck. I have no name of my own, just a father's father's father's name that I never wanted in the first place. There's no level playing field here.

Soon after writing that rant, I came across a Grauniad article on the same topic, which applied a lovely description to a woman's surname; 'temporary label'. It's a knotty one. I doubt there's a non-sexist surname option other than making up an entirely new name. (I do know one couple - very new-age - who did just that, but I don't know if gender played any part in that decision).

The OP (Kelbesque) went further, and questioned whether we really need surnames at all; Surnames exist entirely to convey origination information. If that information is
important, neither spouse should need to give that up; and yet their children should have that in their names; and if it isn't, then what the hell are we doing with surnames? ... I have to be honest, I feel surnames are a pretty stupid conduit for origination data anyway. They reflect an ancient and idiotic tradition that has been abandoned for long stretches of history without issue. I would as soon be [first name] [middle name] and not [first name] [middle name] [surname] were it not for the fact that a surname is legally required of me.

Here we seem to come up against changing demographics; in even the recent past, single-person households and even childless couples were considerably rarer than they are now, and the extended family was far stronger. I once heard it said (on Radio 4, no less) that the bicycle was most important development in human evolution in the last thousand years; before bicycles, almost all reproductive partnerships necessarily involved two people born less than 20 miles apart; the faster we've learned to move, the more the family disintegrates. The surname, which would once have likely indicated a discrete geographical and cultural origin, no longer carries enough data to be relevant.

So, origination is bunk. Why surnames, then? I'm inclined to regard them as indicators not of origin, but of a shared responsibility; a united group of creators and created that have a burden of care towards each other. Not necessary, but a snappy way to indicate who's responsible for caring for Baby, (or for Granny, who, unlike Baby, has been pushed to the outer shell of the nuclear family and is expected to form an ionic bond elsewhere). It's making an identity out of care. Can we do that without mindlessly replicating a sexist tradition?

1 comment:

Chalice said...

In general, I do think monogamous, long-term spouses(married or not, it makes no difference) should at some point decide on a common name for their family. I think it's mean and confusing for kids for that not to happen. Beyond that I also think it's better for the mental state of all involved and helps form a stronger bond between the individuals in a family if they have a common name to go by. Granted, that's based purely on a gut feeling I have, and experience may prove me wrong. Only time will tell.

I do think the notion that it should be the man's name is unnecessary and foolish. However, I also think hyphenation is equally silly and foolish. It both looks and sounds stupid, and often harsh, and could cause confusion in the place of unity. It, essentially, stops the family *actually* having a common name, which defeats the entire purpose.

In the end I would encourage families, however any group of people may define that word, to take whichever name the two core spouses prefer, or come up with something entirely different that you both feel represents you.

As you know, I'd be totally for taking your name or come up with something new if we didn't both think my surname was badass. <_<