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?


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?


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.)


10 thoughts on “Solve surnames with union names

  1. Seems to me the hardest mental shifts are emphasizing the former middle name/union name and overcoming the now difference in parent/children last names.

    But this seems more eloquent, and infinitely more fair and sustainable than a partner dropping theirs or combining them. This is novel to me! Did you come up with this yourself?

    1. Yes, the difference between parent’s and children’s surnames would take some getting used to. There’s no real way to avoid that without losing most of the advantages of union names.

      And, yup, I came up with this. I’ve since heard unconfirmed stories that various couples have independently arrived at systems like this, though.

  2. Awesome Idea and great post. As I read it, I was thinking “this will also help with the slow death of surnames” — since patronymic names where all created in state-making processes spanning the last 600 years, they are slowly dying out. People are making up names and hyphenating two names together at lower rates than existing names are dying out — so the system is long term unsustainable.

  3. Very interesting idea! I like how it’s encompasses shared name with offspring (VERY useful in school and hospitals), while still not forcing any of the partners to lose their existing name.

    Too bad my country of citizenship doesn’t allow any names besides first name and last name (yep, no middle names), so there would be no way to make union name official.

    In the end, it seems like an elegant system, but it faces an uphill battle, in some countries more than others.

  4. I’m not convinced. It’s confusing and the surname is important for identifying a person, family, relations, etc. so it’s not something you should be able to make up as you like. Besides, I doubt it’s a good idea to give people the chance to make up names more than they already do. It’s bad enough to have children named Apple, etc., I’m not looking forward to potential Apple Lightningdust etc.etc.s.

    1. Some of this is addressed in my follow-up post: It might be confusing for parents and children to have different surnames, but it will also be confusing if a parent’s surname changes and friends, employees, hospitals, etc. have to learn the new name. One of the key advantages of union names is that no one ever has to change their first or last name at any point during their life. Every option is confusing to some extent, though; incest and celibacy are some of the only options for people who want complete nominal clarity.

      As for the problem of people coming up with dumb names for kids: I’d rather increase the severity of that problem in the hope of fixing it, rather than preserve the status quo.

  5. One issue is that you can instantly tell whether a woman is married, if unmarried women have two names and married women have three. Many women, due to the discrimination they face either way (unmarried women are “available” to be sexually harassed, married women are refused jobs by employers who assume they’ll take maternity leave), prefer to be unclear as to whether they’re married. “Ms Surname” is ambiguous and that’s the way I like it.

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