Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

What's in a name?


Would A Whitlock By Another Name smell as sweet? R. Alex discusses the question of name change at length.

Emily Post, of all people, has a segment on socially appropriate ways to change names. She mentions the blendings, the hyphens, the maiden-name-as-middle-name (which most women do), the name adoption in either direction, and one R. Alex left out: a woman who changes her name for family affairs and also keeps her professional name. Her children would be Whitlock, their teachers would know her as Mrs. Whitlock, her license would say Whitlock, but her books would be authored by Lafayette, her movies would star Lafayette, and her patients would know her as Dr. Lafayette. I know quite a few people who have done that last one; they say there are a few catches (explaining to dense people what is going on and having to have two bank accounts) but, on the whole, they're very satisfied.

I've always planned to change my name -- at my mother's urging, for she dislikes our harsh-sounding last name and wishes she'd stuck with and given us her Welsh maiden name. It doesn't have much resonance on my father's side, either, as he's an offshoot Truett family but in truth goes to Powlas and Lyerly family reunions, along with the other Truetts, and not to a specifically Truett reunion. (He's from a German-origin farming community in North Carolina, and they're big into names and reunions and all that.)

I got one feminist-liberal incredibly annoyed with me my freshman year up at Harvard, when I mentioned that I'd probably change my name (unless the guy was, you know, Bob Dipstick or something). She also couldn't understand why, having had experience of both, I preferred schools with uniforms to schools where "you are free to form your identity and express your individuality." (Uniforms are just so much easier, both in terms of pressure to be stylish and in terms of getting dressed quickly in the mornings, because you know exactly what you're wearing every day!) I explained to her that I wasn't that shallow; that I could be an individual no matter what clothes I was wearing, and that my self-identity wasn't tied up with a few syllables.

Assuming that I end up with Bob, I'd probably change my name to some lengthy South Indian name. That case is different, though, as most Tamil communities don't really have a concept of a last name. Low-caste people would be called just Thomas or Kannan or Preema; high-caste families such as Bob's sometimes take a caste-designation (Iyengar, Agrawal, Sharma, etc.) when authoring books, but generally just use their given name plus the father's initial as a prefix. To modify an example, Bob's grandfather's name was Ramaswamy. Bob's father's name is then R. Gopalakrishnan and his uncles are R. Sundareshwaran, R. Balasubramaniam, R. Krishnamurthy, and R. Laxminarayanan. The ones living in America, on forms where they have to write out a full first name on forms, write out Ramaswamy Gopalakrishnan, but they go by "Gopal" at the office and at home. The custom is broken when it gets to children (UPDATE: children of Bob's family in America, that is), however: Bob is Bob Gopalakrishnan, not G. Bob. Women, no matter what their caste, generally have only one name in Tamil areas. Priya is just Priya; when she marries, she affixes her husband's only name to her own. Low caste, she's Priya Thomas (but goes by just Priya); high caste, she's Priya Krishnamurthy, and sometimes goes by that whole name. So, in other words, while names are much more important -- spelling it a certain way (Iramasami instead of Ramaswamy) can make a political statement, and mispronouncing it can offend the gods -- they're not really something you pass on to your children and their children. Caste and sub-caste affiliation is your dynasty (insofar as there is that concept), not whether your last name is Kennedy or not.

I've got this nagging feeling that I'd change my name just to bug people. There was a wonderful Chronicle article a few years back by a non-Asian woman who'd changed her name to her husband's "Chang"; she wrote of being placed in charge of diversity at her company, of having people very angry at her because she didn't look like a Chang, and of having a much easier time getting reservations at popular Chinese restaurants. While a name may not change how you feel about yourself, it sure can change how other people treat you! That article inspired me -- messing with people's stereotypes, making them realize their shallowness doesn't work anymore... a good thing.

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