Who am I?
That’s the kind of question one usually asks while in the midst of existential angst.
But every year, untroubled American women pose the question as well.
Women rather than men, because we men are born Theodore W. Landphair or John H. Jones and remain Landphairs and Joneses the rest of our lives. In that sense, at least, we know who we’ve been, who we are, and who we’re going to be.
Unless, of course, we, like the American football player Chad Johnson, don’t like our names, determine to officially change them, and get a judge to sign off on it. Johnson, who wears No. 85 for the Cincinnati Bengals, is now, quite legally, Chad Ochocinco. Ocho cinco is Spanish for “eight five.” Mr. Ochocinco apparently didn’t know, or didn’t care, that “85” translates as ochenta y cinco. Maybe there wasn’t room on his jersey.
But back to the ladies.
For generations, it was traditional for an American woman who wed to take her husband’s last name. Upon marrying James Davis, Mary Robinson would — often giddily and gladly — become “Mary Davis,” or, just as proudly, “Mrs. James Davis.”
Most American men would never do the same. I’ve been called “Mr. Highsmith” plenty, after the last name of my much-more-famous wife, and my teeth grind a bit when this happens. “The name’s ‘Landphair,’” I’ll sometimes correct them. Macho pride. But a lot of Mary Davises are perfectly content to turn the “Robinson” time in their lives into merely a memory.
Traced to its roots, taking a man’s name signifies that the woman is no longer her father’s, but instead her husband’s, property. Fathers who escort their daughters down the wedding aisle are still said to be “giving the bride away.”
The feminist movement of the mid-1900s challenged that convention, arguing (rather persuasively) that it gave greater value to a man’s name. Some American women — and a relatively few men — began exploring new naming combinations. These days there are options that still shock and amaze those who think the “Mrs. James Davis” way of doing things is fitting and proper.
For 30 or so years, Bride’s magazine has been surveying its readers about their choices of surnames.
(An interruption: I never can remember which is the surname and which is the “given” name or “Christian” name — the latter an old-fashioned term for sure, since everyone is certainly not a Christian.)
In 1984, 93 percent of women responding said they were adopting their husbands’ names upon marriage. Now, Bride’s reports, the figure is down to 80 percent. If true, with about 2,230,000 U.S. marriages each year — I should stipulate heterosexual marriages given recent developments — it means that almost half a million newlywed women each year are keeping their maiden names or coming up with some combination of their birth names and those of their spouse.
Some women adopt their husbands’ last names legally and socially but hold onto their maiden names professionally, because they’re the ones that have long been associated with a business or service. If you’ve been Gladys Bledge, Attorney at Law, there are more complications than buying new business cards to suddenly becoming — upon marrying Robert Barnstickle — “Gladys Barnstickle, Esq.”
Other women turn their birth names into MIDDLE names, as when Phyllis Caulfield” becomes “Phyllis Caulfield Smith.” (Smith is the husband dude.) Sometimes a hyphen connects the last two names, sometimes not.
“Women who keep their birth names or hyphenate have a very specific set of characteristics,” Laurie Scheuble, a sociology professor at Penn State University, told the Hartford Courant newspaper. “They marry at an older age . . . are gender-role nonconventional, are well-educated, and have prestigious occupations.”
They are? All of them? And what does “gender-role nonconventional” mean? I smell another blog topic.
Combining surnames according to a set formula involving the names of older relatives has been common in Latin cultures. But hyphenated names had not been widespread in other U.S. ethnic communities until recently. More about those powerful hyphens in a bit.
What seems really revolutionary to traditionalists is the choice by some MEN to graft their WIVES’ last names onto their own, creating a new identity for themselves.
For example, “Rodney Parker” marries “Celia Hopfernagel” and opts to become “Rodney Parker-Hopfernagel.” The couple creates a whole new identity that they — husband as well as wife — share. I knew a fellow who went this route. After five years, he told me, he no longer thought of himself as a man with one last name. He had internalized his hyphenated identity.
“There’s a kind of optimism that goes with hyphenating both people’s names into one unit,” he told me, sunnily. “Your individuality is still there. Your name is still there. Both names are joined forever.”
Yes, but note that the husband’s name comes first in the melded, hyphenated name. But it doesn’t always. A Lawrence, Kansas, World & News story noted that Brenda Peterson ran a hair salon in town. “Everyone that I do business with knew me as ‘Peterson,’” she told the paper. So when she married Tom Smith 13 years ago, she became Brenda Peterson-Smith.
Her name, “Peterson,” first. Presumably Tom, too, changed his last name to Peterson-Smith.
There have even been the odd times when the groom isn’t particularly attached to his last name — don’t read this, Mr. Ochocinco — and takes his bride’s instead. Maybe if my name were Ted Grapplehooker and was marrying Clarissa Van Dellen, I’d change my name, too.
I know a woman who married and kept her maiden name in every setting. I’ll call her Becky LaPorte. She married Oliver Windlass. He kept going his merry way through life as Oliver Windlass, and Becky remained a LaPorte. That didn’t raise many eyebrows. Americans are pretty well used to the different-last-names deal by now.
The other day I said to Carol, “what does Becky’s daughter go by, again?” She told me the kids of Becky LaPorte and Oliver Windlass were using both parents’ last names. Their daughter’s name is Julia Windlass-LaPorte, and their son is Corky Windlass-LaPorte.
That pleases Becky and Oliver, no doubt, but it may not always please the kids’ schoolteachers, friends, or Julia and Corky themselves. Let’s face it: “Julia Windlass-LaPorte” is a mouthful. And you can bet that little Corky isn’t entirely comfortable introducing himself as a Windlass-LaPorte to his baseball coach.
Turns out, both children use just the Windlass name almost everywhere they go. So why did their parents bother with the hyphenation procedure?
And the snags keep appearing. Older relatives may not approve or feel hurt that an old family name has been altered or abandoned. I have a friend, Steve, who, eight years into his marriage, has still not told his grandfather about his, Steve’s, “new,” hyphenated last name.
If you confused now, consider this:
Suppose Julia Windlass-LaPorte, the daughter in my scenario above, loved her name — insisted upon using it, actually. And she met and fell in love with another “liberated” person who also carried a hyphenated name. Someone like our friend Rodney Parker-Hopfernagel.
What in the world would Julia and Roger’s kids be called?! Sara and Benjamin Parker-Hopfernagel-Windlass-LaPorte?
Devilishly, I can’t resist taking this one step farther:
Benjamin Parker-Hopfernagel-Windlass-LaPorte meets the enchanting daughter of another enlightened family: Beverly Hawkins-Freedman-Lillyville-Toth. They fall madly in love, marry and resolve to keep all their various names, and have a bouncing baby boy.
Check out the name on the hospital bassinet:
Lawrence Parker-Hopfernagel-Windlass-LaPorte-Hawkins-Freedman-Lillyville-Toth. Unless, of course, the proud parents decided to put Mom’s last names first and call their little dumpling Lawrence Hawkins-Freedman-Lillyville-Toth-Parker-Hopfernagel-Windlass-LaPorte.
Little Larry, a living law firm! Wait’ll he’s a few years old and discovers he has a MIDDLE name in there somewhere, too.
Tracing the family tree was tough enough before hyphens showed up. Imagine the genealogists of the next century, looking back on this one and trying to track, say, the “Lillyville” piece of the Parker-Hopfernagel-Windlass-LaPorte-Hawkins-Freedman-Lillyville-Toth family.
Reminds me of the old song, “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” that originated on the Vaudeville stage. It’s one of those songs, like today’s last names, that never ends.
All this name rearranging seems kind of cute and catchy. But there can be a dark side. When two newly and happily married people comingle names and give them to their children, all may be well until the “happily” part goes away and there’s a divorce, perhaps a bitter one. Mrs. Hoague-Anderson may want no part of that Anderson bum’s name any longer. And she may not want her kids carrying his name any more, either.
And when new name combinations show up in a person’s records at the bank, the electric company, credit-card firms, and law-enforcement agencies — especially those who scrutinize your documents when you travel — things can get sticky. Just remembering that your name is “Jenkins” at one place and “Jenkins-McGraw” at another can be daunting. Have you alerted everybody, down to the motel chain that’s giving you points every time you stay, about your name change?
No wonder I’ve heard people all across America say, “Who am I?” Even out loud.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Bassinet. A basket, often hooded and on wheels, used as a baby’s bed.
Giddy. Dizzy — usually not in a medical sense, but rather, lightheaded and somewhat silly in a happy sort of way.
Surname. The family name, as opposed to the “given” first and middle names in many European and American homes. The term is a modification of the old, English “sirename,” meaning the (last) name a man took from his father.The family name, as opposed to the “given” first and middle names in many European and American homes. The term is a modification of the old, English “sirename,” meaning the (last) name a man took from his father.The family name, as opposed to the “given” first and middle names in many European and American homes. The term is a modification of the old, English “sirename,” meaning the (last) name a man took from his father.