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Choose The Coolest Surname
A non-sexist strategy for picking last names
Traditionally, in the Anglosphere, a woman takes her husband’s last name.
It should be obvious why this is an unacceptable solution for the modern feminist era. It involves treating men and women differently for no well-justified reason, which is sexist. It reflects archaic ideas of a woman entering a man’s household, of her identity being subsumed by a man’s. It systematically disadvantages women working in fields (such as academia and the arts) where you need to maintain a consistent surname to build up a reputation. Same-gender couples are left in a situation of surname anarchy.
Some people have solved this problem by having everyone in a marriage keep their own surnames. However, it’s aesthetically displeasing for different members of a family unit to have different surnames. It’s romantic for people to show their lifetime commitment by sharing a last name. And in the common situation where people have children, this just pushes the problem forward a generation. The kids, after all, have to have a surname. And whose surname are they going to have, most likely? The man’s.
Some people solve this problem by hyphenating. But hyphenation is also not long-term stable. If a person with two surnames marries someone with two surnames, then their children will have four surnames, their grandchildren eight, their great-grandchildren sixteen, and so on and so forth until we need a computer the size of a living room just to store the names of everyone in the fourth grade class. Again, you’ll have to drop a surname, and which surname is most likely to be dropped? The woman’s!
In short, these solutions are the same solution as the unacceptably sexist one discussed above. What we need is a principled, non-gendered method for choosing surnames.
Many cases can be settled straightforwardly. As I mentioned above, certain careers benefit from continuity of surname; if only one partner is an academic or an artist, they should keep their surname. (If both are, the more successful should change their surname as a show of equality.) Some people would prefer not to bear the surname of their abusive parents. Many people have been burdened by their thoughtless, misguided, or simply unlucky parents with horrible names. I once knew a Donna Blessing, the preacher’s daughter, as well as a woman whose parents saddled her with the name Candace Kane. (No joke!) Of course, people with unfortunate surnames such as Dahmer or Hitler suffer as well. Under current social norms, women with such unfortunate names can change them easily; men are stuck with them. It would be better for everyone if Don Blessing and Alexander Hitler could also change their surnames.
But many people are fine with their surnames. In this case, I suggest that the couple go with the surname that is coolest.
It is obvious that many people are stuck with surnames that, while not objectionable, are simply not very interesting. The surname “Miller” is not bad exactly but I doubt that it sparks joy. On the other hand, the surname “Rowand” has a lovely mouthfeel and makes you sound a little bit like you’re a background elf in an eighties fantasy novel. I think we should have fewer Millers and more Rowands. Safire, Cartwright, Langston, Crenshaw, Rose, Tannenbaum, Griffin, Wolfe, Love, Peacock, Morningstar… there are many options for beautiful, meaningful last names.
It’s an enormous shame that millions of people are laboring under the burden of surnames like “Smith” when they could have the surname “Tannenbaum” or “Wolfe” or “Morningstar.” Literally nothing is stopping us from having half of society with surnames like fantasy novel protagonists and half of society with surnames like romance novel heroes. We can make this happen. Everyone has a right to a surname that fills them with delight.
There is only one conceivable objection to this solution. People’s assessment of surname coolness is going to be correlated. Not 100%—a very common surname is inherently less cool—but enough to cause a serious reduction in surname diversity. A smaller pool of surnames potentially causes confusion when people with the same first and last name interact. However, there’s a solution to this problem! If both surnames are unacceptable for some reason (for example, perhaps both people have unfortunate surnames), if there’s disagreement about whose surname is the coolest, or if the couple simply has a creative streak, they might make their own surname.
Judicious use of this strategy has the potential to make surnames much cooler than they were previously. Indeed, it’s responsible for many of the coolest surnames I’m aware of, such as “Alchemy” and “Eden.” While some people will no doubt have terrible aesthetics, those surnames will be selected away by evolutionary processes, leading to cooler names overall. We will no longer be bound by the aesthetics of whenever people were assigned surnames! We can take charge of our own nominative destiny!
I’m not a hypocrite. I’m taking my own advice, which is why my surname is “Brennan,” which means “raven” and “sorrow”, which is goth as hell. You may be stuck with an inferior surname now, but you don’t have to pass this along to your children! Choose the coolest surname, and we will have a brighter, gother surname future.