Giving last names to children


in Geek stuff, Law, Science, Writing

When sperm and eggs – collectively called gametes – are formed, a process called meiosis takes place. This is the process where a human’s complete set of 23 pairs of chromosomes gets reduced into a single set of 23. That way, two gametes can combine to form a complete genome, comprised half from the father’s genetic material and half from the mother’s.

Perhaps this process can serve as a model for a more rational way to deal with family names. It is clearly antiquated to stick to the approach of having a woman’s family name obliterated at marriage. Women aren’t commodities traded between clan-like, male-dominated families. As such, I see no rational basis for them taking their husband’s name.

There is an exchange in an episode of The Simpsons that touches on all of this:

Marge: The police have such a strong case against Homer! Mr. Burns said he did it, they found his DNA on Mr. Burns’ suit.

Lisa: They have Simpson DNA; it could have come from any of us! Well, except you, since you’re a Bouvier.

Marge: No! No, no. When I took your father’s name I took everything that came with it, including DNA!

Lisa: Um…(rolls her eyes) Okay, Mom.

Of course, having parents with two different family names after marriage complicates the question of what name to give to any children. I propose an approach modelled on meiosis.

For the first generation, it is easy. The children of Mr. A B and Mrs. X Y would have the family name B-Y (or Y-B, whatever).

Once generations of people with hybrid names start to marry, however, there is the clear risk of infinite last-name expansion. If a B-Y marries an M-N, should any resulting children be called B-Y-M-N? What about when those B-Y-M-N children start marrying C-Z-O-P children?

This is where the meiosis comes in. When naming a child, each parent would choose how to cut down their own last name to one that is a reasonable length to serve as half of a hyphenated name. For example, someone with the unfortunate surname of ‘Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg’ should probably pick one of four. Someone with a more reasonable surname, such as ‘Bowes-Lyon’, should pick one of two. Someone with a surname as concise as ‘Kent’ or ‘Chan’ could keep the whole thing.

I would leave it up to the individual to choose how to do the truncating. They can choose the parts of their ancestry that have more personal importance for them, or they can do it at random.

Through this approach, children would have names that more accurately reflect the reality of their lineage, without ending up with names that are impractically long.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh May 5, 2011 at 3:26 am

Quebec introduced legislation in the 1970’s, which allowed for the eventual A-B-C- D approach to last names. I do not believe it took off.

I find hyphenated names somewhat complicated.

One solution to is to avoid any assumption that the gender of one parent determines the last name of a child. Another mechanism could be introduced, such as the alternating the use of last names for the children which is what occurred in our family.

Byron Smith May 10, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I am also not such a fan of hyphenation. And though I respect the choice of oleh’s parents, you end up with a family where the names do not make it clear that you all belong together (which, I take it, is part of the point of having surnames).

A couple of years ago, I struck upon what I believe to be a novel (and fair and exciting) solution for use in couples where there is not a strong reason to prefer one name to another. During the wedding ceremony, there is a public tossing of a coin by the minister or celebrant, with the result being immediate and binding. No one can complain. Although it is arbitrary (as the present dominant system is arbitrary), this arbitrariness is not on the basis of gender, but chance. And it would give people something to talk about after the wedding service other than the bridesmaids’ dresses.

What do you think?

Byron Smith May 10, 2011 at 3:39 pm

PS I’ve just realised that oleh’s comment is ambiguous. Apologies – I respect your choice if that is what you meant (rather than your parents).

Milan May 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Alternating is better than the standard practice of giving all children the father’s name. It could be considered an extreme form of mitosis, where the information from one parent is culled entirely.

I like the idea of coin tosses as a way of determining who changes their name, incidentally.

. May 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Coverture (sometimes spelled couverture) was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband. Coverture was enshrined in the common law of England and the United States throughout most of the 19th century. The idea was described in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in the late 18th century.

Under traditional English common law an adult unmarried woman was considered to have the legal status of feme sole, while a married woman had the status of feme covert. These are English spellings of medieval Anglo-Norman phrases (the modern standard French spellings would be femme seule “single woman” and femme couverte, literally “covered woman”).

A feme sole had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. A feme covert was not recognized as having legal rights and obligations distinct from those of her husband in most respects. Instead, through marriage a woman’s existence was incorporated into that of her husband, so that she had very few recognized individual rights of her own.

As it has been pithily expressed, husband and wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person was the husband. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. In certain cases, a woman did not have individual legal liability for her misdeeds, since it was legally assumed that she was acting under the orders of her husband, and generally a husband and wife were not allowed to testify either for or against each other. Judges and lawyers referred to the overall principle as “coverture”.

oleh May 13, 2011 at 3:27 am

Another possibility is for the couple to agree on a completely new name as they commence their new life together and before they have children. I believe of one couple doing this. However, I think their marriage did not last through the point of having children.

Has anyone ever heard of either the approach of adopting a agreed upon different married name or the coin toss or equivalent approach.

Another situation that I am familiar with is where both partners had the same last name before marriage. Alas, if life was that simple.

Byron Smith May 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm

I’m also aware of a couple who picked an entirely new last name not long after getting married. While this has the advantage of signalling within one generation a clear and shared familial bond, it comes at the cost of multigenerational connexion. There is something nice about having names that can be traced back hundreds of years.

I haven’t heard of anyone yet taking up my coin toss idea, but I’ve been trying to spruik it to newly engaged couples. No luck yet.

Both parents having the same last name would be easy, but would also invite plenty of jokes about inbreeding (and, in the case of less common surnames, this could be a genuine concern).

Milan May 13, 2011 at 8:28 pm

All life is related, so technically all breeding is inbreeding. Still, there is a distinction between mating with someone who shares an ancestor with you twenty generations ago and mating with someone who shares an ancestor two generations ago.

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