Must Surnames Be Sir-names?

This just POPPED into my head a few days ago. It’s not like I never thought about it before, since it was discussed a LOT in the 1980s among my grad school friends in linguistics and English. In Western society, the tradition for the past number of hundreds of years has been that women took the surname of their husbands upon marriage (you know, to show who they belonged to and who got to take all their property).

First names on a bulletin board
Somehow, we’ve always been freer with given names. I’m awfully disinclined to be Oflee, though. Image from @eliza_og via Twenty20.

Those of us who were in the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s got all worked up over this remnant of the patriarchal system we were trying to overcome. It was quite the hot topic, since for many of us, this tradition held sentimental attachments and symbolized “love” and “commitment” to them. Others didn’t want to feel like someone’s possession and didn’t want to change our names. Both sides have valid arguments.

A picture of Icelandic money
Iceland also has women on their money, and guys with cool hats. Image from @SteveAllenPhoto via Twenty20.

It’s often been pointed out that, well, if you keep your birth name (maiden name, not a popular term among my friends at the time), you are simply keeping a patronymic from the previous generation. Yep, that was totally true, unless you happened to be from Iceland (like Björk Guðmundsdóttir) or using a Gaelic system (Máire Ní Bhriain).

As alternatives, people thought about new ways to symbolize with their names that they have formed a commitment to make a family unit. A lot of people hyphenated their last names or used both, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, as it’s quite common. Sometimes both partners do this; sometimes just one of them do. Hmm. Others just added the new one to their previous one. I actually bowed to pressure and was SueAnn Kendall Crain for two years. I never got comfortable with it.

See, I even have things published under that name.

Some of us (me since the Crain episode) just kept the names we were given. However, I’d hoped to give male children their father’s surname and female children mine. Only little dudes showed up, though, and their names match their dad’s Irish surname quite nicely, so I’m okay with it.

The most fun names to me are ones where people combine their sirnames (yuck yuck) to make new ones. I knew a few people who did that back in the 80s, then didn’t hear much of it until later. I LOVE some of the combinations people come up with!

names on a wall.
Choose random syllables and have fun.

The option that bows the least to the patriarchy is where members of the family select a completely different name to symbolize their commitment. Why not? Genealogy students probably roll their eyes at this, but hey, at some point in history, that’s what everyone did. English people chose their occupation (Archer, Butcher, Tanner), where they came from (Kendal, in northern England), a personal characteristic (Whitehead), etc. Other European places made similar choices, while Gaelic folks stuck with their patronymic Mc- and O’ (son of) surnames (very few women continue to use the ní (daughter of) ones today). So if I wanted to be Suna Plantsinger, I could. Lee wouldn’t go for that.

Back to Combining Names

Where am I? I didn’t intend to write a history of surnames. I do believe one can look that all up on the googles. What I was trying to get to was how popular the idea of combining the last names of people who’ve formed family units is among my friends. I asked people this a couple days ago:

Thinking about surnames. What if you and your spouse (or partner) blended your surnames as a sign of commitment? What would you get?
A fun question

At this time I have had 171 responses. I guess there was some interest. Most people simply took the beginning of one name and combined it with the end of the other. Some really came out like names that should stick!

  • Kendall + Bruns = Kenduns, Brundall (Kens, Brunsken, etc.)
  • My neighbors Faivre + Mitchell = Fitchell or Maivre (best was Faivritch)
  • Lozano + Harris = Lozarris or Harrizano

It got more creative when people took random syllables and moved them around, or surrounded one name with parts of another.

  • Brukends is one I like for me and Lee.

Here’s a story someone shared, which I hope is anonymous enough not to be invading their privacy:

We have friends named FredRICkson and PeTERson who got married. They took the middle syllable of each name (the core of who they are) and now are legally The Ricters which I love. They used a scrabble tile themed sign to announce it after the ceremony.

That was so creative!

There were two couples whose name ended up nearly the same as each of their existing surnames. I guess that was destiny!

  • Peterson + Jensen = Petersen, Jenson

None of this solves the problem of our names being reminders of not-too-distant times when women could not own property, vote, etc., and in fact WERE property. But, it shows that today we can have some fun with it. I’m thinking of a party game or something, where folks could vote on the best blended names.

Desperate for fun? Ummm…maybe.


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Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

6 thoughts on “Must Surnames Be Sir-names?”

  1. Ah okay, that’s interesting – I didn’t know you could do that! In Germany, you can choose between
    a) taking your spouse’s surname (this is the most common option, and yeah, most women still do that)
    b) hyphenate (it is SUPER rare for the man to do this in straight relationships and can lead to er … INTERESTING last names)
    c) keep your respective names (you have to chose one of your names to be the family name though, if you have kids)

    The most interesting thing, however, is how the name topic is still perceived – most men are not inclined at all to take their spouse’s name or hyphenate (my father in law, however, DID hyphenate in the 80’s, which was certainly unique). As for Philipp and I, we kept our respective last names – we both love ours, none of us wanted to give it away, and so we left them as they were. If we ever decide to change it, no problem. We’re still happily married. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A friend of mine was Robin Englemann when she married Bruce Jungenberg in the 80’s. They combined the names to become the Enbergs. They were married in Wisconsin where they could do that for free. Had they married in Iowa,they would have both had to have a legal name change. I took my first husband’s surname, but dropped it after divorcing and have gone by my birth name for nearly forty years. My second husband and I wanted boys to have his name, and girls mine, but we had a girl first and didn’t want to lose the chance to perpetuate his name. Now one of our sons is married and our daughter in law hyphenates, since she is the last with her father’s surname.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. if George and I had combined our names..it would have been HartlinePaine…which to a cardiac nurse like he is would be cool. me? not so good. I could see it becoming Hart Paine which somehow is worse.

    Liked by 1 person

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