Thursday, April 28, 2011

What’s in a Name?

Women may change their last name (surname) several times during their lifetime - after they marry, divorce, remarry, etc. They may choose to use more than one name at the same time (maiden name, married name, previous married name, professional name, etc).  At worst this is discriminatory; at best this is confusing.  I generally don’t know the current surnames of women who attended high school with me.  If I look one up in my high school alumni report under her maiden name, an entry is there informing me of the person’s current name and redirecting me to look up that name.  This type of problem of course propagates through records of all kinds.

Ancient civilizations tended to name people using the patronymic, e.g., Isaac son of Abraham.  Even today, Hebrew names used in Orthodox Judaism are constructed using the patronymic formulation.  However, when someone is ill and his/her name is inserted into the prayer for the sick, the matronymic is used – perhaps because the mother figure is associated with nurturing and healing or perhaps because it is believed that the Deity might be more sympathetic to the anguish of a mother whose child is sick.

Over time the use of a surname became standard practice in the naming of people.  Today, Iceland is perhaps the only country where the patronymic is still used uniformly.  The standard became that children would be bestowed with one or more given names and the surname of the father.  In addition, upon marriage women, by convention, would take on the surname of their husbands.

There are several problems with this system.  First, why is it important to propagate the surname of the male lineage?  The male-only line is but one strand in the meshwork of human beings that constitute one’s ancestral heritage.

Second, and more fundamentally, the current system fails in its primary objective – to reliably associate an individual with a name that identifies him/her.  The current naming convention is unstable over time – most women change their names at least once during their lifetimes.

How could the naming convention be improved?  In some families the two members of the married couple retain their own birth names and their children’s surname is the hyphenated surnames of the two parents. This is a practice that self-evidently cannot be sustained over generations.

I think a far better solution would be for the surname of a child to be the hyphenated first names of the two parents.  For example, the daughter of John Doe and Jane Smith might be Jasmine Jane-John.  Such a surname would identify the child as being the offspring of the two parents. 

The surname would thus identify the child with his/her closest blood relatives – parents and siblings.  In this system, each individual - male or female - would retain his/her birth name over a lifetime. This system would put women and men on an equal basis and provide every individual a name with which he or she will always be reliably associated.

Is my proposed new naming convention a hypothesis worth testing?  Well, perhaps if my suggestion had been adopted and as a result Romeo did not bear the surname “Montague”, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet might have had a happy Hollywood ending.

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