‘What’s in a name?’ mused the Bard. ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Romeo and Juliet were certainly not fussed but broadly speaking society has frowned on the call to ‘doff thy name’. Names are fascinating. The study of names is a distinct academic field known as onomastics. We need a given name for a very obvious reason – it gives us an identity. Whether we have prison issued numbers or extravagant appellations, people need to distinguish us from the person next to us. Surnames are a bit different. Deeply symbolic and tied to history, a surname is seen as an inheritance. Have they retained their significance or in this enlightened, post-modern, deconstructionist world, are we free to change or even disregard surnames altogether?
The history of surnames differs from culture to culture but they generally arose as an administrative tool. Particularly as populations increased and the government census became more common, a surname or family name would help identify one group from another. The aristocracy was the first to employ surnames as a way of tracing their noble lineage. In my own case, Jones is a Welsh name meaning the son of John which, suitably enough, is my father’s name. Peasants would eventually take last names to indicate their clan or function. Jim the Baker eventually became Jim Baker. Richard the Blacksmith, became Richard Smith and so on. Occupations were originally as much an inheritance as any physical possessions. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was rare for young men to do anything besides what their father had done.
How important are surnames today? We are certinally past the point where they indicate either our noble lineage or our profession. They are still needed from an administrative point of view – especially if your tribe has blossomed like the Joneses! There is still a nice link to the past by carrying on the family name. It is a touch phallocentric as, generally speaking, women still forfeit their surname at marriage and the children carry on the father’s legacy. Surnames are clannish, tribal things that bring comfort, identity and a sense of continuity but what if your last name is awful? Is there not a point where the evolutionary nature of language means keeping an unfortunate last name is just silly?
There are many examples where evolutionary linguistics have left people with a surname that doesn’t quite sit right. Take, for example, rugby league legend, Johnny Raper, Apple CEO Tim Crook, singer Bruce Cockburn and American sprint star Tyson Gay. Now 100 years ago, all of these were perfectly normal surnames but by luck of the draw they all have very bad modern meanings. Johnny, let us be clear, is not a rapist. The jury is out whether Tim is a crook but, for the sake of argument, let’s presume his innocence. Bruce (presumably) does not suffer from a burning sensation down below and if he does there are things modern medicine can do to fix that. Finally, Tyson is not gay … not that there’s anything wrong with that!
These are a few celebrity examples but there are many more everyday people with surnames that are less than appealing. Often, in this globalised world, it is simply the result of different things sounding funny in different languages. Colon, for example, is a perfectly acceptable surname in Spain but it would not bode overly well in an English speaking country. Similarly, Ho is a fine name in China but if the family moves to Australia it is probably not what a young girl wants to be called repeatedly by students and teachers alike. Spare a thought for those who have inherited the surnames, Belch, Cuck, Dinkle, Gunts, Jerker, Pugh or, my personal favourite, Wildonger.
What would you do with an unfortunate surname? Is it as simple as going to court and having a name change? When would you do it? As a child, adolescent or adult? Are you letting down your parents and your ancestors or are you doing a wonderful favour to your children? As a Jones, I certainly don’t feel any need to carry on the family name but I do wonder how much it would hurt my parents if I changed my last name. Would it be a complete rejection of them? I think Muhammad Ali had the right idea. Our name is so central to our identity, it must ultimately be something that we can be proud of and we can love. Ali, like many African Americans, saw his surname as a slave name and rejected it. His new name reflected his faith and who he was as a free man. Malcolm X did the same thing. Our parents are important, our history is important but we have only one shot at this life. We must not cower under a name we do not love. Be who you want to be and love who you are. Let freedom reign.