On Surnames

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Despite a century of slow progress towards gender equality, there remains a very basic part of life where overt unchallenged patriarchy is par for the course – surnames.

Tradition continues to dictate that when a man gets married he keeps his name but when a woman marries, she has a choice to make. Broadly speaking, there are three commonly chosen options: keep their name, take their husband’s name or go for hyphenation.

On the surface keeping their own name makes the most sense. Getting married doesn’t change who you are so why should it change your name? And the husband isn’t changing his name so why should the wife? But the problem comes when kids come along. If mum and dad have different names then what name does the kid get? Again tradition says it’s the dad’s name but having that as a blanket rule is obviously unsatisfying in terms of gender-neutrality and ends with mother and child having different surnames. Not ideal.

Taking the husband’s name is the traditional option which in a way makes it the easiest approach. But it just reinforces an inherently sexist tradition so it’s understandably not an attractive option for a lot of people.

Hyphenation kind of solves these problems. Both the husband and wife get to keep their own name, they just add their partner’s name into the mix. And the when there are kids they get the same name as both mum and dad and the whole team is on the same page. Problem is though – this is a one-generation solution. What happens when two people with hyphenated names hook up? A pairing of Adam Ashley Cooper and Melinda Gainsford-Taylor would produce a freakish athlete but a horrible unprecedented quadruple-barrel surname. So yeah hyphenation is out.

So what to do?

The answer is the portmanteau: you take the first half of the wife’s surname and combine it with the back half of the husband’s to form a new name which they (and any kids they have) can share. Gender equality is preserved, the whole family has the same name and unlike hyphenation, the portmanteau holds up over multiple generations. When the kids grow up and get married, the girls keep their mum’s part of their name, the boys keep their dad’s. Even better, you quickly get away from the current situation where multiple unrelated families have the same surname. It would only take a generation of portmanteau for the Smiths and the Joneses to be replaced by more interesting and unique combinations all the more so as we become more and more multicultural. An Indian-Greek surname hybrid would be a thing of beauty.

One last benefit is that the portmanteau system holds up for gay marriage. A marriage between two men would see a shared surname consisting of the back half of both their names while for two women getting married you’d do the same thing but with the first half of the names. Problem solved.

Let me know what you think.


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