Genesis 2:19

Anyone who’s ever had to enter names in a database knows how frustrating it is to process "alternative" names.  Such names seem to be (and often are) wholly contrived without regard to historical, cultural, typographical, or sexual convention.  One suspects that the parents who choose such names do so out of transitory vanity and with utter disregard for the child who has to bear the result of their conceit for his or her formative years.  Everyone has a baby-name horror story; mine is the daughter of a co-worker who named her daughter "Infinitee [sic] Unique."

One is tempted to advocate a policy similar to those of certain European countries which maintain lists of "acceptable" names from which parents must choose.  Such governmental intervention in so personal a matter seems obscene to Americans, but it is part and parcel of societies that lack the American cultural fetishiziation of identity and contempt for governmental registration.  In such societies, no one regards one’s "official" name as having a significant connection to one’s identity; your school records, passport, driver’s license, and marriage certificate may all read "Jean-Luc," but everyone calls you "Yo-Yo."  Like one’s language, ethnicity, religion, and social class, one’s name is considered part of the inevitable baggage for which one can hardly be accountable.  In exercising control over the naming of children, governments in such societies not only standardize record-keeping but also claim to protect children from the stigma of capricious names.  Despite declining marriage rates, European governments also affect a horror of the stigma of illegitimacy and so require children take their father’s surname (in the case of unmarried parents, a father wishing to pass on his surname is required to make a formal Declaration of Patrimony, both earning certain rights and incurring certain obligations).

In the United States, about the only tradition we still honor is self-re-invention.  Accordingly, we make it relatively easy for anyone 18 years or older to legally change their name to anything composed of ASCII characters.  Similarly, Americans have had little trouble accommodating (socially if not bureaucratically) hyphenated surnames for spouses and their offspring.  Nevertheless, changing one’s name is still most commonly associated with either marriage or an artistic career.  Many professionals (typically females) who are accomplished before marriage feel obliged to keep their maiden surnames while their children take what, absent professional concerns, would be their married surnames.

As both an American and an information worker with a fetish for etiquette, I’m not convinced that the "problems" of absurdly contrived first names or cumbersomely appended surnames require a "solution," least of all one imposed by the government.  What I would like to see is a greater social recognition of the congruence between one’s pre-majority name and one’s unemancipated status as a minor.  That is to say, I’d like it to be more commonplace for 18-year-olds to seriously consider changing their names. I don’t want it to be a requirement, of course, but it should be made as easy as possible, like Motor Voter Registration; on your 18th birthday, you receive a Name Change Form in the mail from your state.  I imagine most people would keep the name their parents gave them, but many would not, resulting in greater acceptance of names as impermanent, and a concomitant accommodation for non-traditional names or children with names different from their parents’.  If it becomes a rite of passage for a child to be "re-christened" when he or she attains majority, it becomes less important what surname the child is given at birth, and therefore there is less consequence to what surname the parents adopt at marriage.

As a father, I am well aware of the social role played by surnames in establishing and enforcing paternity.  I expect my proposal would be criticized by both fathers’ rights advocates and those who believe fathers need greater encouragement to support their families.  When my French wife and I married, she replaced her birth surname (identical to her father’s surname) with my surname (identical to my father’s surname).  This was entirely her choice, but of the reasons she gave for this decision the one I most easily supported was that her birth surname is (by both American and French norms) rather long and difficult to pronounce.  Had she demonstrated any affection for her birth surname at all, I would have seriously considered hyphenating, combining, or exchanging surnames, or simply encouraging her to keep hers.  As it was, she took my surname, and so there was little reason to give our son a different surname.

It would be foolish to pretend that I am completely indifferent to the fact that my son has the same surname as his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and his great-great-grandfather (that’s as far back as I’ve ever researched; before that, they could all be Schickelgrubers as far as I’m concerned).  I would like to think, however, that were he, upon his 18th birthday, to change his name to Raymond Luxury-Yacht, I wouldn’t love him any less.  Indeed, I would be proud of him for participating in a time-honored American tradition.

He’ll have a hell of time with his French passport, though.

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