Naming Rites

On the eve of the most universal of American family holidays, I am thinking of the question of names. In particular, the interaction of surnames and marriage.

In the interest of both “setting the stage” and providing at least the appearance of a disclaimer, I should acknowledge, that (1) I am married and (2) my spouse and partner-in-crime, Maggie Penn, has (quite rationally, when you think about it) chosen not to take my last name.

Perhaps as a result of the fact that our naming configuration differs from that adopted by each of our (wonderful, awesome, inspirational, and—to be honest—classically liberal) sets of parents, I have realized that our approach of leaving our names unchanged in every respect after our marriage provides a special, and arguably idiosyncratic, visceral value to me.

I will dispense with the traditional explanation that my spouse is an established scholar on her own.  From such an explanation, instrumental benefits such as citation counts, professional reputation, and other benefits flow from maintaining an independentce in nomenclature above and beyond that traditionally accorded to spouses in years past.

Rather, I increasingly think that there is a very important point inherent in recognizing that names come from birth. And, as an ancillary effect, that marriage “merely” adds to the lineage of one’s life as opposed to overriding the events, happenstances, and detritus that came before (or, perhaps more provocatively, “caused”) the “marital event.”

My own experience suggests that there is significant value in at least two aspects of not having a common marital nomen (or, respecting word order rather than history, cognomen). Specifically, “keeping one’s name” (an idiom that has a distinctly and unfairly selfish feel) is arguably valuable insofar as it (1) reifies (or, perhaps, enforces acknowledgment of) the separate and important paths that led (at least in equilibrium) happily to the betrothal, and (2) puts the potential futures (or, perhaps bargaining positions) of the two equals on suitably equal footing.

The first of these reasons–the reficiation of the independent paths by which the betrothed came to be such–is particularly important when dealing with an instantiated third party.  (Or, for example, in colloquial terms, a child.  But, to be fair this could be a colleague, a neighbor, or a candidate for public office.) In short, when I am dealing with someone, there is a presumption that should be implicit in the conversation, given my wearing a wedding ring, that the whole enchilada of “this” is, barring explicit assurances to the contrary, presumably fair game for conversation with my spouse.  (After all, she and I can have pillow talk about our murder sprees and not be subject to the sovereign’s prying ears in terms of incrimination…So how could you expect to be immune from me telling her about your “secret USB drive” containing each and every one of AC/DC’s songs, ripped by your old college roommate?)

Having different surnames–not by choice but because our parents don’t happen to share surnames (not there’s anything wrong with that, conditional on your surname, of course)–reinforces this very important concept.  My spouse is my equal.  Names don’t matter, except to the degree that they are, in fact, simply external impressions (labels) of who we “are.”  That might be my own weird reasoning, but at least I find it compelling, and I (at least functionally) always have.

Two side points. 1. I say “functionally,” because I used to have a strong aversion to the concept that “labels matter.”  I have since “grown up,” and as a presumptive “relative elder,” I see the wisdom in labels.  Examples include “Professor,” “Unindicted,” and “Silver Preferred.”

2. I have yet to hear a meaningful retort that is not equally consistent with the imperative that, at weddings, we should have a coin toss (probably right after that really fun garter toss) in which the marriage “naming rights” are awarded.  That is, I won’t go too far into the gender inequity inherent in traditional naming conventions, but I’m willing to do so.  Only because an active opposition to my points here suggests that you have an interest in the status quo, not “surname convergence,” as it were.  But, you know, bring your best.

Second, the idea that one partner takes the other’s name, regardless of how that assignment takes place, differentiates the two spouses in terms of future negotiations.  In particular, whoever takes the other’s name is (for the sake of argument, yadda yadda) impaired in future negotiations because he or she (come on, “she”) has, upon introduction, revealed that, at some point in the past, been married. (And, before you say, well, that means he/she must be desirable, note that this effect would manifest itself in people voluntarily adding random surnames to themselves.  I only know of one occasion of this, and that has just been weird, though kinda awesome, too.

In the end, I like to walk into a room, particularly one in my house, and think that we’re all there for the same reasons.  (For example, I would never let a plumber into the pantry, and I would make a cook use the potty outside.) Marriage is collaboration, and I always want not only to know that everybody is there for the same reasons, but also that they know that I’m there for the same reasons.  The “math of politics” point of this post, as silly and introspective as it might be, is that securing for your partners the determinants of bargaining power is not nearly as effective as securing their knowledge of your knowledge of their possession of those determinants.  In other words, it’s not simply about being equals: it’s about both sides knowing that both sides know that both sides know that both sides now that both sides know … that both sides are equal.

With that, I wish you all this.  Happy Thanksgiving! And, more importantly, thank you, thank you, thank you Maggie, for being my partner in crime.