Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Marriage and naming conventions

Recently two of my close friends got married (to each other).  This is great.  It does however raise a problem that's been in the back of my head for a while.  You see, like many people, these friends of mine have names.  And, as with many facets of life, living in the modern word has made this better, but also more complicated.

Back in the day (I like to use this phrase as often as possible to infuriate those friends of mine who are students of history (I also like to write in the passive to annoy those who study English (and lots of embedded parentheses to annoy all that don't study philosophy))) it was nice and simple...  Well, it was definitely simple.  Mr Smith marries miss Jones, and lo and behold, miss Jones becomes 'mrs Smith' in a transformation which is as far as I can tell, philosophically rather uninteresting.  This convention has come under scrutiny, and the seemingly widespread conclusion in the educated, liberal, and generally left wing circles I rotate in and orbit around, is that it is rather dated and sexist.  Not that there's anything wrong with a woman who wants to take on the surname of her husband, oh no, but there is definitely something wrong with the expectation that they should (there are also historical connotations about the ownership of women by their fathers and husbands, but I take this to be part of the same problem).  As such, modern women are (or at least should be) free to abstain from this particular convention if they wish.  In fact, several new conventions have arisen for such circumstances.  I have encountered three candidates, and have been forced to conclude that (based on certain assumptions about values) none of them are satisfactory.

Option one: The hyphenated name.  Under this convention, when mr Smith and miss Jones get married, both of them change their names.  Each acquires the surname of the other in conjunction with their own, in a double-barrel pump-action hefty-calibre name, chained together by the magical hyphen that presumably represents their matrimonial union with a semantic one.  There are several combinations available, Smith-Jones, Jones-Smith, or even each having the name in a different order.  I see some problems with this approach:

1 - Deciding the order.  Okay, so how much of a big deal this one is really comes down to what you make of it.  If we assume that the groom's name goes first then we've not really gained anything from this whole deviation from the norm.  If we assume the bride's name then we've made the exact same mistake with the addition of being either hypocritical or cowardly (interestingly this problem isn't so charged in same sex marriages).  I like the solution where each takes the other's name first/last, but it encounters another problem that I'll drone on about later.

2 - Think of the children!  Here are two anecdotal observations from my own childhood.  First, children make fun of other children for having hyphenated names.  Second, everyone ends up calling a child by the first surname anyway.  There's another problem relating to children, but we'll get there in a moment. 

Option two:  Both bride and groom retain their original surnames.  This one has the virtue of being simple, respectful, and light on paperwork.  However, there is a problem concerning the inheritance of names (I realise that many of these problems relate to children, and so couple not looking to breed needn't worry, but lets face it, statistically the overwhelming majority of married couples have children, and the naming conventions associated with marriage should accomodate this trend).  Say Mr Smith and Mrs Jones decide to bring a little baby Smi..., no, Jone... ah.  What surname does the child get?  Either way one parent misses out.  But wait, we all know what's coming next.  Let's name the child little baby Smith-Jones (or Jones-Smith).  Well, so at least the baby's name makes sense, but (and here comes our first assumption) it seems that it is generally a desirable thing for children to have the same surnames as their parents.  After all, that's pretty much why we started giving surnames in the first place right?  To tell who was related to who?  Anyway, if you can get past that then there's a problem I call 'the problem of exponential and exacerbating proliferation of surnames', or 'PEEPS' for short (suppresses childish grin).

In short, the ultimate problem with any widespread convention of the linking of names (either upon marriage or childbirth) is that it's only a couple of generations before surnames are too large to be used without a portable usb.  If miss Smith-Jones marries mr Abdul-Mohammed, then they'll become some variation of mr and mrs Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed.  Of course, when little baby Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed grows up and marries miss Zhu-Raffioporto-Sidebottom-Agamemnon, then the earth shatteringly cool (but skull-splittingly unwieldy) surname Smith-Jones-Abdul-Mohammed-Zhu-Raffioporto-Sidebottom-Agamemnon comes into existence.  Obviously this will just continue with every wedding/birth to unacceptable levels.

Of course, couples getting married can always chose one name from each and hyphenate the two, discarding the rest.  But here there lies a risk of offence.  Many parents would be pretty hurt to see their children discarding their name, and again, how do you chose which ones to ditch?

Option Three:  The combi-name.  Another couple I know of combined their names upon marriage.  When miss Wood married mr Smith, they both took the name Woodsmith.  I like this approach, but alas, you know I'm going to winge about it now.  First of all not every pair of names will combine as well as this one does.  Second, PEEPS is still a problem, except with really long single word names.  Third, again it seriously disrupts the continuity of family names (making genealogy very difficult).

I have a lot more to say on this, but I'll wrap up.  My final conclusion is that there is no satisfactory replacement convention that could be adopted for everyone (as the old convention used to be).  This doesn't mean that the above approaches are wrong for individual couples, I know of several couples for whom these solutions have been just dandy.  What it does mean however is that none of them could be adopted universally.  The only solution is (and maybe this is the westcountry in me coming out) that we only marry people who have the same surname as us...