On surnames

The other day I linklogged the biography of the wonderfully-named Cowasi Jehangir Readymoney, the descendant of a wealthy Indian merchant’s family who adopted a nickname as a surname. Since then, I’ve been pondering on how rare such an occurrence is; that is, how rare it is that in the modern era, people adopt a new surname based on what they have done or how others call them. While there are host of surnames for professions (Smith, Baker, Cooper, Chapman, Cartwright), they all have medieval or earlier origins; there aren’t many names originating from the Industrial Age, (very few people have the surname Miner, Docker or Labourer) and virtually none at all from the Information Age (how many people do you know are called Accountant, Lawyer, Estate Agent or Programmer?)

I suppose it’s because just as the Industrial Revolution was taking place, it was also the dawn of widespread literacy and the database state (the first national census was in 1801, though it wasn’t until 1841 that it fully noted individuals’ names). Having gone through some old genealogical records I’ve noticed that spellings varied enormously through much of the 19th century, and even in areas with thoroughly complete records, you could sometimes draw complete blanks once you got back to a particular point in time. In an age before names were written down regularly and montonously, identities would be more ambiguous and local, which could be chosen and changed. Now they were framed and laid out as definite in black and white; a move from descriptiveness to prescriptiveness. Throw in Victorian values that promoted the nuclear family and monogamy, and a growing middle class seeking to emulate the one stratum of society that have always had surnames, the nobility, and you have a hardening of surname identities.

(Feel free to flame away at my historical theories, btw)

Of course, I’m not the first to point out the hardening of identity, and some writers have tried turning it on its head. Max Barry tries a “what if this applied in the globalised age?” slant in Jennifer Government, where everybody takes on the name of their employer as their surname (meaning that one of the biggest social shames is to be surnameless and thus jobless). Meanwhile Neal Stephenson, either being ridiculous or sublime, goes all self-referential in Snow Crash by giving his main character the name Hiro Protagonist. And there are probably plenty of other examples where authors have deliberately given their characters surnames indicative of their personality or their destiny, which is all the more ridiculous given that one’s surname has no real bearing at all on such things.

So, given we are entering the era of the individual (according to every political philsopher you consult) why don’t we ditch our surnames, change them, adopt new ones, or mix them up? Of course, there is still the whole connection to family (which itself has implication for ethnic self-identity), but surnames nearly always neglect one half of your family tree by default (unless it’s double-barrelled, or your parents were both born with the same surname). And in any case, you could be lumbered with a really ugly or unsuitable surname (I always feel slightly sorry for people in the news called Raper, and as for Segar Bastard, I bet he’s glad he isn’t a football referee today) that even the staunchest of family ties might not be enough to make enjoyable (though of course, you could well still be proud of it, it’s your choice after all, shouldn’t impugn or make assumptions, etc. etc.).

No, I’m not thinking of changing my name, by the way (Christopher Geek doesn’t sound all that nice, and in any case it is probably unfair on my descendants…. having said that, they could always change their names as well). But it strikes me as weird at how rare picking a new name is, and when people who do change their names (for reasons other than marriage) appear in the papers, they’re often described derisively (although some of them arguably deserve it). It’s doubly strange in a society which is more than willing to inflict ridiculous forenames on innocent children who have no say at all (particularly this utter tool). Not the best of standards; while of course it’s perfectly fine to stick with the name you’re given, we should be more supportive to people who want to give themselves the surname Accountant or Programmer or Call-Centre-Operative.

5 thoughts on “On surnames

  1. With regards to aforementioned utter tool, there’s some sort of joke in there somewhere. I think it’s something to do with the Jon Blake Cusack 2.0 being preceded by a limited release, or something, but I haven’t quite got the energy to make it work properly. Oy.

  2. I was actually thinking about silly forenames yesterday. I heard of a couple who wanted to call their child ‘DJ’. They weren’t allowed to, so they opted for ‘Deejay’, which I think is even worse!

  3. Why not just do the sensible thing that has been done for years and call him “David James” or something that gives him DJ as initials? Oh well.

    Anyway. What I was going to say before I got distracted by that was that Chris clearly isn’t a big fan of nominative determinism, then. Which is a pity; it’s always one of my favorite things when it turns up in New Scientist.

  4. Just in case you didn’t know, when Attaturk turned Turkey into a modern European-style country one of the changes he made was that everyone had to have a surname. In fact, his surname was given to him by parliament – it means “father of the Turks”. Just imagine – the whole country having to choose a surname at the same time.

  5. The Spanish system is probably the most elegant solution to the family-tree problem: Mr Smith and Ms Jones’ little boy Fred is called “Fred Smith and Jones”, and has until his adulthood to decide which of the two he’s going to standardise on. (Picasso used his mother’s name – he was born Pablo Ruiz y Picasso.)

    Oh, and I think your history is bobbins – surnames were being treated as meaningless, and handed down unaltered, by the sixteenth century if not earlier. (In England, at least – this is a field with massive geographical variation.)

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