Despite being an avid reader, I didn’t think I would need your advice when it came to naming my daughter (due middle of October). My partner and I are both big F. Scott Fitzgerald fans and early on fell in love with the name Zelda. It’s a touch old fashioned so she won’t feel out of place with all her future hipster classmates Charlotte, Enid and Elspeth, but modern and unusual enough that she can still feel unique (or give her a few options of El, Ellie, Ella if she wants). I know you also like the name, I particularly like that it’s a strong sounding name with a subtle feminist nod in both the meaning and the 3 most well-known Zeldas (Fitzgerald/Sayed, “The Legend of…”, and Spellman!).
We have a few back-up names that we really like, but don’t truly love: Zoe (but feels like a bit of a cop-out that we weren’t brave enough to go all out with Zelda), Molly (bit too Irish floozy, especially coupled with my Irish partner’s Mc-Surname), and Cora (I like it for the ancient Greek meaning, my partner likes it for the Last of the Mohicans connection). But none of them feel “right” the way Zelda does.
When it comes to the surname, however, I have very mixed feelings. When I was born, my mother was horrified that she had to include my (absent) father’s surname on the birth certificate, which has saddled me with the unenviable combination of his serial killer-esque name (think: Butcher, Slicer, Cleaver) and her perfectly acceptable, if somewhat vanilla name (Jones). As mentioned, my partner has a Mc-Irish surname and has vetoed my preferred solution which was to simply choose a new surname for our new family. My second solution is to have the matrilineal surname Jones for any daughters and patrilineal name Mc-Irish for any future sons, in which case I would probably end up dropping the serial killer part of my surname for consistency. Our names don’t seem to portmanteau/hybridize very nicely, and three hyphens is far too long.
But despite my original aversion to “patriarchal, misogynistic practices based on outdated heteronormative power dynamics about property and ownership”, I am coming around to the idea of using my partner's name. The compromise would be that her middle name would be Kay after my grandmother (or Annie after his grandmother, if we decided to go with my surname). The patriarchy-smashing, naming equality of the hyphen only really works for a single generation, and then what are we supposed to do? Can you offer any alternative surname solutions I haven’t thought of? Or some words of wisdom to help me accept that I will be the last of my name? Failing that, we might be forced to rethink the whole name altogether and be inspired by another joint favourite of ours, “The Artist Formerly Known As Zelda”!
Wow, what an easy letter to answer! Yes 100% go with Zelda, and please know that while I think Zoe is a fantastic name, I’m going to be borrowing your line, “Feels like a bit of a cop-out that we weren’t brave enough to go all out with Zelda” forevermore.
Oh wait. There’s a whole other question, isn’t there?
Well, I’m going to start with a (possibly rhetorical) one of my own…
It’s kind of amazing that, as our generation has discussed and dismantled gender norms and traditions that don’t work for us anymore, the idea of creating a ‘new, blended’ surname comes up All The Time – and yet, I don’t think many of us know anyone who’s done it. Certainly I don’t know anyone who could say, “Oh yeah, I know lots of couples who created a new name.” Everything else, including supposedly more out-there choices like men changing their names or alternating which kid gets which surname or etc, is in common practice, but as a generation, we’re not that great at the ‘making up a new name’ thing.
Why is that? Is it the same reasons that creating surnames for fictional characters is so hard? For all I talk about how first names have characteristics and thus imagery attached, I think it’s exponentially more true for surnames, especially since they’re reinforced over generations. Does it just feel too naked to get up there and make something totally new?
I ask this partly because I read your whole letter trying to understand why you weren’t doing what I considered to be the most obvious option… why not become the McIrish Jones family?
I’m making some assumptions here, based on what you’ve written above – that you’re interested enough in a ‘common’ surname between parents and children that you’re actually contemplating some sort of change, which doesn’t at all change your stance on the patriarchy-smashing of it all in principle, and I understand we’re talking about logistics here – and that as a result, you’d be happy enough to do away with the Butcher/Slicer/Cleaver of it all.
So why not McIrish Jones? If your name comes last (which it should, as the single syllable is more of a definitive ‘ending’), it will still very much be your name in play, and it doesn’t feel too long to me at all… possibly because you’ll notice I’ve eliminated the hyphen.
This is one I feel strongly about. I hear you on two or three hyphens being untenable, and I can’t speak to future generations, but I know that everyone who hears a double-barrelled surname understands what it’s about, and or thinks of people who have them as three-named people – you don’t need the hyphen to annoy you and disagree with character numbers if you use it as a password (never use it as a password, you guys). I bet if I asked people who have hyphenated surnames and who don’t, they’d both say it’s inserted or deleted where it shouldn’t be about half the time so… why stress yourself out? I’ll hear it if there’s some specific reason I’m forgetting about, but I mostly think half the aversion to the dual surname is the hyphen itself. I will also hear counsel from people who are called by two first names – if you’re a Claire Louise or a Michael John, I want to know about it – but that little punctuation mark is, I suspect, causing more reticence than is necessary.
I also know people who use both names but reverse them for each subsequent child, or where all the children are called by the mother’s last name because patriarchy, and etc. It’s all fine! As I pointed out last month, everyone’s aware of the current imperfect setup we have going on with surnames, so everyone’s very easy about whatever they come across.
It’s hard to speak to the implications of your kids having different surnames from one another, since we don’t know what gender split you’ll have and how that will manifest – if you have one of each, that’s great – but you might feel differently if you have four girls followed by one boy with a totally different name; you may have to play it by ear on that front. That said, if you do decide to give them surnames based on their sex, it occurs to me that the really feminist thing to do is to give any boys your last name – after all, if it’s worthy of passing on, it’s worthy of passing on to them, too, right?
I’m looking forward to hearing how this one turns out. Ttry to feel it out sounds-and-emotions-first as you did with her first name, as best you can, and let us know!
PS – Once again, you guys are killing it with your email names – I had to truncate this one from its full glory but stole it wholesale for the title of this column!