Tuesday, 31 August 2010

What's In A Name?

by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

I got married a couple of weeks ago. I think that there are a lot of interesting things to ask about that. For instance, what does marriage within atheism mean? Do you marry because you expect something to change or because it already has? Do you seriously expect us to save a piece of wedding cake for our unconceived child, or was that a joke? Yet the only question that people seem to ask is: are you going to change your name?

Just so that you don’t spend the whole post pondering, the answer is: no, we haven’t decided what we’re going to do with our names yet.

I’ve found the whole process of getting married wonderful… and fascinating. The mere mention of the word seems to elicit an ingrained and impermeable reaction in people (myself included). What’s more, not only do most people seem unable to control that reaction, but they also seem oblivious to it. And the issue of the name appears to be king.

There are two things that I’ve found particularly interesting. The second most interesting of these is that whilst the question is significant enough to be asked again and again and again… and again, it seems that my actual name pales in significance by comparison. “It doesn’t matter Rach, why not just consider changing it”, “Why hold on to your name Rach, isn’t that just ego?”, “Rachel Montes? It’s pretty.” As if that was in some way relevant.

By writing the above I risk offending most of my closest friends… which leads me to the most interesting thing. The pressure to bow to tradition hasn’t come from “society”, but from within my closest social groups. Odd.

Incidentally, no one’s asked my husband if he’s going to change his name. Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing.

So my ponder? My ponder is: what’s in a name? A quick flick through the papers suggests that there’s quite a lot actually.

1. There are those who have their names changed for them.

Hands up if you remember John Darwin? Nope, didn’t think so… how about the Canoe Man? There we go.

The Tabs have affectionately renamed the man who was brutally stabbed to death and hacked into pieces: Spy In The Bag… seriously?

Susan Boyle post-break down and post-waxing became known as SuBo. It didn’t catch on, nor did she.

I’ve become quite accustomed to hearing about Baby P. The tragedy of his story never seems to be far from us. And then every once in a while I hear someone refer to him as Baby Peter and the reality of it punches me in the stomach again.

2. There are those who adopt additional names.

Having a pseudonym has become an accepted and unquestioned tradition, particularly within the arts. But when you do stop to question it, it really does beg a question or two. Of course there are some who build entire personas and lives around a pseudonym and that ability is their artistry; think Banksy.

And then there are others who, like the George Elliots and Currer Bells of this world, rely upon pseudonyms to break down barriers and find expression. I get that.

But on the whole, pseudonyms seem to be used by people who are either scared that their “created” vs “true” identities are incongruous, or, they’re embarrassed about one or the other… or both… and so hide behind a pseudonym. And on the whole, we accept this practice. Perhaps we shouldn’t? I’m not sure.

3. There are those who give up their names all together.

The jury’s still out on this one too. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the current use of anonymity. Again, there are clearly situations in which the right to anonymity is not only acceptable, but should be fiercely protected. But, if you give a statement to the press, or post online anonymously, i.e. you’re not willing to put your name to it, then why should anyone be willing to give validity to what you’re saying? Surely, by indiscriminately encouraging anonymity, all we’re encouraging is cowardice?

4. There are those who have become convinced of “the value” of their names.

Super injunction. I’m afraid I can’t say anymore.

There isn’t necessarily a consistent theme to the above, except that names clearly matter, otherwise why would we go through the hassle of changing or hiding them.

So all in all, I don’t know what’s in a name… but I do know that there’s something. I also know that I’m not going to be in a hurry to lose mine just yet. So maybe I’ll be Rachel Montes, or maybe he’ll be Mr Surtees, but either way, I do wish people would stop asking.

Click here to go to first post


  1. My name is very likely to disappear. There are only 4 of us left in the world, my parents in their sixties and seventies and a widowed cousin in his nineties who never had children. I am the youngest and a girl who has decided not to have children. So unless I become famous and the name survives in people's memory it will disappear completely. There is a bit of an obsession from my elderly cousin with the name and he has mentioned to me that I should keep my name if I shall ever get married. My mother is obsessed with genealogy and it is there on paper: every branch of the family traced centuries back to die off with no male heirs to continue the name. My dad was the last one to pass on his name and it was to his only child, a daughter. If I get married I will not change my name because it will precipitate the inevitable and I want to hold to my name for that little bit longer.


  2. This is such a contentious issue and it seems really difficult to find a solution. I really don't know how to marry my feminist ideals (he should change his name) with practical questions (what problems are created when a family doesn't share a name? - my sister had difficulty proving that she was her son's mother) and personal sentiments (I want to keep my name, because it sounds like me), etc, etc, etc.

    I would love to know how you guys negotiate the minefield because I have no idea - and haven't even had to discuss it with a partner yet!

  3. I have a double-barrelled surname, which often sparks some kind of reaction in people.

    Until very recently, I only bothered using the first part of my surname - not because I disliked, was embarrassed or indifferent to my second surname, but more as consequence of convenience. In my email address, for example. I’ve never been good at creating catchy pseudonyms, so I find myself going with the option of cutting my name down. Never thought it was a big deal, until one day my dad caught me in the blasphemous act of (in his words) castrating my identity and then proceeded to lecture me about ancestry and progeny.

    I suppose that our name is our most fundamental identity, our most basic label…..Rachel Surtees is this……Rachel Surtees is that…….So perhaps, it follows that loosing your name does strip you of your identity, and in turn adopting your husband’s name somehow labels you as his property....

    Hmmm…..not convinced. I can see how this would have been the case in the past, but these days we define ourselves by so many labels other than our name. How many Thomas Bakers do you know, that are actually bakers for example?

    I’m not suggesting that this renders the name unimportant, just that it carries less identity clout.

    Perhaps, taking on your husband’s name can be seen as an act of union; sharing a name as a reflection of your love for each other. But then, as you say, if this was the case, why not have your husband take on your name, or both of you take on an entirely new surname?

    Not really sure what I think. Interesting post...

  4. I took my husband's name because I wanted us to be more than just a couple, I wanted us to be family. I guess its not a very feminist thing to do but having the same name makes me feel that we are bound together (i.e. as equals not as his property). I have never defined myself by my name and I am exactly the same person now as I was before I got married so nothing changed there. What is interesting is that it never occured to me to ask my husband to change his name, which I'm fairly sure he would do if thats what I really wanted. I guess this is due to the norms of society in which we are brought up.

  5. But Candice, just because names don't hold as literal an identity as they used to, surely that doesn't have to mean that they don't hold identity at all does it?

    To use a less controversial example, I call myself Rachel, Rach, Rachy or R, depending on the situation that I'm in and who I'm talking to. It really bothers me if someone calls me by the wrong name - whether that's someone using one of my names inappropriately, my bank manager calling me Rachy for instance, or if it's someone just getting it wrong, like calling me Raquel. Drives me mad. I'm not defined by my name, but it is a part of my identity.

    Clare, I think you're absolutely right about decisions like this being influenced by norms, but I'd say they're familial norms rather than societal. My family isn't a "marrying" family and I never expected to marry - so the question of changing my name was never a serious question, and now that it has come up I don't understand the logic of why the onus is on the woman.

  6. I tend to think patrilineality is an outdated way of arranging the descent of families and titles. And so is matrilineality. They are both traditions that 99% of people adopt unthinkingly. Personally I would not expect my wife to change her name and I see no issue with a husband and wife having different names.

    More importantly have you both gotten used to that other linguistic issue yet - referring to each other as "my husband" or "my wife"? That must feel really weird at first but must also be really comforting!

  7. RS has hit the nail on the head with the following statement:

    / I don't understand the logic of why the onus is on the woman. /

    There are a number of issues raised in this thread I could comment on. However, if I were to give each (what I feel is) its proper attention, my post would be enormous. So, I hope I will be allowed to paste the url of a web page where I have expanded on this theme.


    Should anyone visit this page, I'd be very grateful of any feedback and thoughts you may have.

    For those unwilling to go to my page, I will just cite something I read on another thread and try to compress the comment into something manageable.

    As women have now gained the right to keep their own surname, they may find that if they do not (collectively) exercise that right, the right may wither and ultimately disappear. (Full text at Cary Tennis, www.salon.com Nov. 16, 2007)