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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My Name Is (NOT) Sue! How Do You Do?

Time for another good ole rant. It’s about names. Names seem to have a magical quality to them. People become very attached to their given names, or they change them to show they have created a patriarchal family unit for tax and procreational purposes (just kidding, marriage). Other people go right out and choose all-new names when the one they started out with doesn’t seem to fit (I chose Suna at some point as a young woman, for long-obscure but spiritual reasons).

Here I am, not happy with the carwash people, who call me Sue.

Throughout the history of the people I mostly descend from (ye olde English, Scots, Irish people) many names have shortened or informal versions, which we are all aware of: Bob for Robert, Bill for William, Meg for Margaret, Kate/Kathy for Katherine, etc. This is just dandy for anyone who likes to use these time-honored naming conventions.

Now, naming conventions do change, even among us English-American types. There are many people whose parents name them the shortened version of a name. I know folks named “Bill” who aren’t Williams, for example. Other people do NOT like the shortened versions, like my late friend Robert, who only let immediate family and close friends call him “Bobby.”

What to Do?

Really, Herbie. Really Danny Boy. Really Johann Sebastian. Get my name right and maybe I will connect with you.

Well, my general guiding principle is to call people by the name by which they are introduced to me. I’m gonna call Pamela that, not Pam (which will make IRL friend Pamela-not-Pam very happy). If someone introduces themselves as Robert, I’m not gonna gush, “Hi Rob, nice to meet you!” I met a Burton a while back, and there was no way I was gonna Burt him until I found out it was okay with him.

This shouldn’t be controversial. People deserve the respect to be called the name they prefer to go by. This has been true for years and years, and is not some new-fangled concept like asking people their pronouns. (I’m she/her.)

What’s Bothering You, Susie?*

Well, what’s common sense to me, and what’s worked most of my life has recently stopped working well. Normally, I introduce myself as “Sue Ann” and depending on the context, I’d say, I also go by Suna. Lately, more and more, the response to that it, “Great! Nice to meet you, Sue!”

DID I SAY MY NAME WAS SUE?

No. I did not.

I do not identify as a “Sue.” When someone calls for Sue in a crowd, I never think it might be me. Or Susan. Or Susie. I am just a non-Sue. I think I’m a little different, and so is my name, I guess.

Nonetheless, every single new coworker that’s shown up in the last couple of months has begun calling me Sue. Master Naturalist Students? 50% Sue. Folks around Cameron? Yep.

Hey, bot., my name’s not Sue and you screwed up my car wash.

And woe is me, even when I fill out my whole name in online forms, it’s Sue Sue Sue Sue. All these texts trying to be all chummy with me from a certain annoying presidential candidate, as well as the car wash people who screwed up so badly that they should literally be groveling…greet me with a chipper, “Hi Sue!”

By the way, for people I meet in person, I do say, when I can get a word in, “I go by Sue Ann.” I sign every blasted email I send with Sue Ann. If someone did that to me when I called them the wrong thing, I’d notice that signature and fix it.

I know others who have it worse, like my husband Lee whose real first name is Ernest (of Earnest as the local newspaper calls him). But he knows to expect that, as did my whole family of origin, who went by their middle name, except for me, the two-word outlier. Once they explained it, people called them the right thing.

It used to be that I knew a phone call or email was from someone who didn’t know me if they addressed me as Sue. But now people who do know me keep doing it. And I hate to say it, but it makes me like a person less when they do that, even when they are otherwise fine.

Nope. Not gonna chat with you, cold emailer.

I’m attached to my name. I like it. It’s been me over 60 years (other than two years in my first marriage). When I get postal mail addressed to my spouse and me, I get an irrational response when I see something like “Suna and Lee Bruns, Jr.” as I got just last week. Who are those people?

Concluding Remarks

I guess everyone has their hot buttons, and now you know one of mine. I’m not like the great poet, the unwashed phenomenon, who once said,

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say
Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody…

Gotta Serve Somebody, by Bob Dylan

Call me Sue Ann or Suna. I’ll call you whatever you would like to be called. I think that’s respectful. Names matter. We all deserve the respect to be called the name we want to be called.

You got any stories?


*There are about three people who can call me Susie. Dad could, but he’s not available to talk anymore.