Solve surnames with union names

Proposal: When you start a family, make up a new name, a union name. This name goes right before you and your partner’s/s’ different surnames, which are left unchanged. If you have children, this union name is then their surname.

… And we’re done. That’s the entire idea. You can probably just stop reading now.

OK, maybe I should say a little more about why this system is such an improvement on the status quo. What are the problems with other surname-swapping paradigms? What specific advantages do union names offer?

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Problems with existing systems

These are legion, so I’ll break them up into several categories. First, problems with meeting in the middle:

  • Combining names via hyphens isn’t sustainable. Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst marries Ms. Bennett-Moore and becomes Mr. Gramolini-Bronkhorst-Bennett-Moore. Next generation, it grows to 5 or more names. TERRIFYING.
  • Combining names frequently looks and sounds ugly. Surname phonology is not generally people’s main criterion in selecting mates.
  • Smushing surnames together is cute (Nilsen + Pattel = Paltsen) but often unpronounceable, and makes reconstructing the original names very difficult.
  • There’s still some lingering asymmetry and uncertainty in deciding whose name goes first. This isn’t trivial, because if you get to keep your name in roughly the same alphabetical position, you take on less of the social and professional cost of switching surnames.

Problems with having one partner switch to the other’s surname:

  • Making the woman always switch surnames is sexist and dehumanizing.
  • … Why even force people to have the discussion? Squeezing relationships into this asymmetric mold introduces pointless tension and conflict.

Problems with surname-changing in general:

  • Making either person switch surnames can harm careers and hinder social networking.
  • Making either person switch surnames can scramble bureaucracies — making medical records hard to find, for instance.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you go through multiple partnerships/marriages.
  • Surname-switching is extra confusing if you find a new partner while you already have kids. Do your kids switch too?

Problems with leaving names completely unchanged:

  • If neither you nor your partner switch surnames, it’s hard to figure out what your child should be named.
  • If you just make up an arbitrary last name for your child, it won’t have a name in common with you, which makes identifying relatives (e.g., for legal guardian purposes) needlessly difficult.

Besides, all the existing systems are just boring. Why not have surnames actually bear some direct relevance to the individuals who have them?

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Advantages of union names

An invented example of how union names work: The Fairburn/Alexandros family tree.

Symbolism. Union names retain the ritual advantages of conventional marital name-changing. Unions do involve a name alteration, so the significance of the event is branded into your identity in a stable, concrete, visible way. At the same time, people who don’t want to change their names at all are free to skip that step and just use union names for their kids’ surnames. This sacrifices some of the system’s advantages, but a flexible system is a good system.

Moreover, it says something worth saying about consent, mutualism, and moral equality if the same name change is undergone by all partners, rather than the change being asymmetrically imposed on one partner by the other.

A name also has more personal significance if it’s lovingly crafted by partners, rather than being an arbitrary historical relic.

Creativity. You have more freedom to make mellifluous (and super badass) names for your kids — and for yourself — since you aren’t stuck with an inherited surname you have to work around.

Flexibility. Unions names are accessible to lesbian, gay, and queer couples; to polyamorous unions; and to serial unions.

Informativeness. Children and their parents always share at least one name, and in a systematic fashion that makes it easy to trace family trees if you aren’t missing any generations.

If you’ve had multiple independent unions, and don’t want to re-use the same union name for each, it’s easy to tell what order the unions came in (left-to-right yields chronological order), and also easy to tell which children are associated with which partnerships.

If you’re looking at a bunch of names in a family reunion roster, a Facebook thread, or an address book, it’s also easy to discern their familial relationships at a glance, assuming no incestuous unions. People sharing last names are siblings. People sharing middle names are spouses. And if Qiáng’s middle name is the same as George’s surname, then George is Qiáng’s child. (It’s a deliberate feature that sibling and spousal relationships are symmetric, while parental ones are asymmetric.)

As I conceive them, surnames will be more public and professional and official — hence you have them from birth to death, unless you go out of your way to change ’em — while union names would be more private and personal. A small family unit where the parents have union name Argestes (and therefore the children have Argestes as surname) might refer to itself as ‘clan Argestes’ or ‘the Argestes family’ in Christmas cards, whereas on census forms or medical documents it will just stick to individual surnames. It’s unfortunate that this system is very different from our current one, so it isn’t the easiest to transition into. But I think it’s the simplest option available, and the most sustainable.

(Edit: See Union Names: Objections and Replies for a follow-up.)