Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Here's a non-sexist method of giving children hyphenated last names. (You can thank me later.)

My wife and I are having a baby.

The little critter is due on New Year's Eve.

The problem is naming her or him. My wife and I have different surnames. She didn't take my name when we tied the knot, because we both believe that that practice is patriarchal and sexist.

Now, I'm not making the ridiculous claim that people who engage in that practice are patriarchal and sexist. All I'm condemning is the practice itself. Think about it: why should the woman take the name of the man? What is it about having a vagina that explains or justifies this? I haven't a clue myself.

Anyway, my wife asked for advice on some forum for expecting ladies, and not a single person saw anything wrong with the traditional practice. Many of them justified the practice simply by saying that it's traditional, as if that alone would justify it. (It doesn't.)

So this got me thinking. Couples in our position sometimes give their children hyphenated names. But if everyone gave their children hyphenated names, the practice would become impractical. What if John Adams-Bennett and Jane Collins-Davis had a child? What would they call it? Jeff Adams-Bennett-Collins-Davis? And what if Jeff grew up and fell in love with Jennifer Eaton-Fitzgerald-Gardner-Howard and had a child with her? What name would they give it? Seriously? (What's the deal with the names? Did whitey hijack this blog or what?)

Before I became a father-to-be, I never gave this much thought. I simply concluded that this is a difficult problem. But finding a solution to this problem isn't really that difficult, and I've got one. Here it is.

First, some definitions: 
  • A male name is the non-hyphenated name of a father.
  • A female name is the non-hyphenated name of a mother.
Where the parents have non-hyphenated names,
  • the hyphenated name of a son consists in the male name followed by the female name, and
  • the hyphenated name of a daughter consists in the female name followed by the male name.
Where the parents have hyphenated names,
  • the hyphenated name of a son consists in the male name of the father followed by the female name of the mother, and
  • the hyphenated name of a daughter consists in the female name of the father followed by the male name of the mother.
Therefore, in the now usual case where grandparents have non-hyphenated names, a son takes the name of the paternal grandfather followed by the maternal grandmother, and a daughter takes the name of the paternal grandmother followed by the maternal grandfather. 

Consider the following diagram:

I weirdly chose the names of letters of the Greek alphabet to represent surnames. Names in blue are male names; names in red are female names. Boxes indicate gender: names in blue boxes refer to male children; names in red boxes refer to female children. In the diagram, Abel Alpha and Bella Beta have a son whose name is, say, Alan Alpha-Beta. (Since the child is male, the name of the father is first.) George Gamma and Daisy Delta have a daughter whose name is Dakota Delta-Gamma. (Since the child is female, the name of the mother is first.) Alan and Dakota meet, fall in love, enjoy a very special night together, and have twins nine months later. The male twin is named Alec Alpha-Delta. (Alec is given the male name of his father and the female name of his mother. Since Alec is a boy, the male name is first.) The female twin is named Bethany Beta-Gamma. (Bethany is given the female name of her father and the male name of her mother. Since Bethany is a girl, the female name is first.)

This system might strike you as being (1) complicated and (2) weird. Compared to the traditional system of naming, it is both. It also has the disadvantage of requiring that people keep track of which names are female and which male. (If they're in the proper order, this shouldn't be a serious problem.) But it has several obvious advantages. It is significantly less sexist and patriarchal than the traditional system. I say "significantly" since it appears that the father's surnames always come first, and that might seem sexist to some people. (If we remove the requirement that female names for daughters come first, or that male names for sons come first, the problem disappears. But that requirement guarantees that female names come first at least half the time, roughly, and this requirement was itself motivated by an egalitarian impulse.) But even they could not deny that this is an improvement. Female surnames would be passed down, and anyone who bears a child would give at least part of her hyphenated name to her child. The practice of combining names would also become expected of men and not just women.

So, as long as you know your mother's maiden name and your partner knows his, you can put this system in practice the next time you bring a child into the world. So, why not?

The only problem my wife and I have with this system is this: if our child gets a hyphenated name, it could get ugly, and the father's male name is the problem. I guess we should hope for a girl!

(Alternatively, we could adopt the practice of giving male children the father's surname and female children the mother's surname. But that would be simpler than the method I've described and therefore not as interesting!)


  1. Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!!! YAY BABY!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Get ready for the most rewarding, wonderful, exhausting, costly but fantastic experience you'll ever have.

    (PS, You came up with an algorithm for naming babies. I am amazed and tickled.)

  2. Thank you! We are excited and terrified!

  3. For your consideration


Search This Blog


What I'm Following

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson