Tag Archives: surnames

Ask Uncle Quo: should I change my name when I get married?

Commenter RG asks:

Not relevant to this post, but curious to your thoughts: Debate is about a 26-28 year old woman who wants to keep her last name in marriage because of her professional identity. My response was to laugh, what identity do you have at that age? I said, sure there are a couple of hot shots – you came to mind – but I bet they could change their name to a peace symbol and still retain their professional identity. She’s not going into witness protection, FFS. curious what you think about name changes at marriage, reputation, and loss thereof? You seem like someone who would have considered it.

I wanna be like Cathy and answer random people’s questions on Sunday mornings!  In homage to Aunt Pythia I will answer as “Uncle Quo.”

Changing your name seems to me like it would be a massive gluteal agony.  Short answer, independent of any issues of professional identity:  Why would I ask my wife to do something I would never do myself in a million years?

Well, here’s one reason why:  there was a time and a place where not having the same name as your spouse was sufficiently weird that it carried with it its own long-term irritations.  But those days, in the social tranche where I hang out, are not just going, they are long, long gone.  As I said in the comments to the other thread, when I think about couples I know at UW, mostly in the “parents of young kids” demographic like me, it’s very hard for me to think of any who share a surname; the only example I can think of is a couple who both took a double surname (separated by a space, not a hyphen) with the wife’s original surname last.  When I think of couples I know in Madison outside the university, I do know some where the wife adopted the husband’s surname, but in each case they go by three names, no hyphen:  “firstname birthsurname newsurname.”

Professional identity:  in math, at any rate, of course this matters!  If you’re 28, you likely already have a Ph.D. and a couple of papers out, maybe you’re finishing a postdoc and you’re about to apply for tenure-track jobs, you’re going to be on a list of 400 applicants and you want someone on the hiring committee to recognize your name and look at your file, and you’re suddenly going to change your name to something nobody’s ever heard?



As for me and Tanya, we got married 10 years ago and never considered changing names.  We had some vague idea of using my last name “socially” but we quickly realized there was no social situation where that felt appropriate.  Occasionally we get invited to a bar mitzvah by my older relatives on which Tanya is called by my last name.  And I changed my middle name on the Harvard alumni list to her last name.  Our kids have two middle names, the second of which is Tanya’s surname, and their surname is mine.  Nobody seems to be confused about the fact that we’re a family.

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_Seeing Like a State_ and _The Outlaw Sea_

I just finished reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which I learned about via this long, but very worthwhile, Crooked Timber post. Scott argues that complex human practices can’t be well-regulated by a central authority applying rational principles. His case studies — collective farming in the Soviet Union, villagization in Tanzania, scientific forestry, the design of Brasilia, and so on — form a disheartening roll call of grand ambitions capsized and wrecked.

In Scott’s view, the only way these practices can be successfully regulated at all is by replacing them with alternative practices, which have the advantage of being easily understandable, quantifiable, and taxable by the state, but the disadvantage of being ruinously unproductive, and destructive of human capital. The usual result is a retreat to a kind of “fake regulation” where the original local practice carries on behind the bureaucratic curtain — what Scott calls a “dark twin” that simultaneously shores up and makes a joke of the official policy. The alternative is total collapse, as illustrated by efficacy of the work-to-rule strike:

In a work-to-rule action, employees begin doing their jobs by meticulously observing every one of the rules and regulations and performing only the duties stated in their job descriptions. The result, fully intended in this case, is that the work grinds to a halt, or at least to a snail’s pace. The workers achieve the practical effect of a walkout while remaining on the job and following their instructions to the letter.

What’s mostly missing from Scott’s book is a sense of hard choices. It’s easy to condemn arrogant agricultural planners who discard the peasants’ hard-won local knowledge about their crops, and draw up rectilinear blueprints for collective farms from offices a thousand miles away. But William Langewiesche’s The Outlaw Sea presents a more difficult picture, of a world economy dependent on very heavy cargoes moving very long distances on very old ships. Formally, the ships undergo frequent inspections and never sail unless judged seaworthy. In fact, driven by commercial necessity, ships go on sailing far into their decrepitude, changing names and registry when necessary, overseen by no one. Which means that a ship at sea that’s supposed to contain molasses might also be carrying heroin, or pirates, or a dirty bomb. Or it might just be carrying molasses, but be in such bad shape that it breaks up in the waves, spilling its expendable cargo and crew into the sea.

Scott would say that a more aggressive regulatory regime — if such were even possible — would be so inefficient as to kill world trade. And he’s probably right. But reading the stories in Langewiesche’s book, especially his exhaustively reported and thoroughly terrifying account of the 1994 sinking of the passenger ship Estonia, you see the downside, only occasionally mentioned by Scott, of letting local, flexible, unaccountable arrangements work everything out on their own.

Finally, Scott offers this remarkable fact about family names in the Phillippines, where prior to Spanish colonization surnames had not been used.

Each local official was to be given a supply of surnames
sufficient for his jurisdiction, ‘taking care that the distribution be made by letters [of the alphabet].’ In practice, each town was given a number of pages from the alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames beginning with the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise
are still perfectly visible across the landscape: ‘For example, in the Bikol region, the entire alphabet is laid out like a garland over the provinces of Albay, Sorsogon, and Catanduanes… Beginning with A at the provincial capital, the letters B and C mark the towns along the coast beyond Tabaco to Tiwi. We return and trace along the coast of Sorsogon the letters E to L; then starting down the Iraya Valley at Daraga with M, we stop with S to Polangui and Libon, and finish the alphabet with a quick tour around the island of Catanduanes.

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