Naming System

We in the UK have a naming system which goes something like this: your family passes on to you one name, by which you are known in the wider world, and by which your faily is known, and your parents choose for you another name, by which you are known among your family and your friends.

What sort of society does this system make sense in? I’m not particularly bothered about changing it, or arguing that it’s bad, just considering why it is the way it is.

For a start, it works best if people have only one family and stay in it. If you keep getting married, then divorcing, then marrying someone else, then your name ends up changing, or getting hyphenated, or just growing ever longer. Which is inconvenient.

For another thing, it presupposes hierarchy in the family. That’s because families always (well, usually) contain members who come from different families – most obviously, two partners, with different parents. Unless you’re going to have family names doubling in length every generation, you’ll have to erase one family name and make that partner take the other partner’s name. Which makes sense if that partner is in practical terms becoming the servant and property of the other, but stops making sense if they’re supposed to be equal.

Thirdly, the division between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ name makes most sense when the division between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres is strong and rigid.

Similarly, the fact that the public name is shared by all family members makes most sense if the family has only one public representative – let us say, for example, the woman. The woman has a job, goes to public areas, participates in politics, and is known straightforwards by her surname. This doesn’t get her confused with her husband, because he doesn’t enter those spheres, instead remaining at home to raise the children and wash the dishes. If both partners had public lives, then it would be confusing to have them both referred to by their surname, since it is the same.

So our way of giving people names makes sense if we have strong, stable family groups, with one member dominating the others and monopolising the public sphere. I.e. traditional patriarchy. What a surprise.

Audience participation: what might a naming system more appropriate to an egalitarian society look like?

EDIT: Good comments from people, thanks. It occurred to me that to appreciate the contingency of the public-private division, we might consider the phenomenon of affinity groups. These are activist groups based absolutely on ‘private’ personal connections, but which use that connection to enable ‘public’ political actions. It is an open possibility how structures showing these sorts of characteristics could play a larger role in social organisation.

3 Responses to “Naming System”

  1. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    I like the Scandinavian/Slavic tradition of the patronym, but perhaps updated so that a matronym could be used if desired.

    For example, famous Icelandic TV broadcaster Magnus Magnusson is literally, ‘Magnus, son of Magnus”. Traditionally, his daughter would be “Magnusdottir” (Bjork’s second name is Godmundsdottir, according the the credits in her album sleeves – “daughter of Godmund”)

    If women took their mother’s name instead (for example, Lisa’s daughter could be “Lisadottir”) then that would seem fairer.

    Then you have single-parent families, so Lisa as a single mother might have a child called “Simon Lisason”, or Robert might have a child called “Hannah Robertsdottir”.

    If I let my mind go wandering far from home (and it’s really too little to be allowed out like that, but never mind) we could arrive at:

    Robert Lisaspouse married to Lisa Robertspouse – or even, “Lisarobert” and “Robertlisa”. Although, with serial divorces, that could get a bit weird again. I guess I just want any naming system to allow for showing one’s special connection to one’s significant other.

    I suppose the other “traditional” naming method was to take the name of one’s place of birth.

    I remember taking a name when we played “Cowboys and Indians” as a “Big Chief”, that described the conditions when i was born: “Misty Morning”. Maybe some system like that would work. Although, I can imagine a child being given the name “Brian Rainingcatsanddogs” or even “Barbara Pissingitdownoutside”, which might not be the best…!

  2. freethinker Says:

    Why do we even need a ‘naming system’? Naming systems are just another aspect of civilization’s social control and norm enforcement, and assign you your group identity based on sex, ethnicity, religion, caste and even class. And they can be a lot of trouble for you if you live somewhere with a lot of communal tension – you’ll end up getting swept into unpleasant identity politics. Naming systems have way too much cultural baggage for me to care about them.

    I don’t see what you mean by egalitarian, because in a truly oppression-free society names would be of much significance. But an ‘egalitarian’ naming system that comes to mind is the traditional Arab one: I could refer to you as ‘Mother of’, ‘Daughter of’, ‘Father of’, and ‘Son of’, or by a popular ‘Kuniyat’ that describes some special social role or even an eccentricity of yours. The Arabs were a nomadic people and had no need of a single ‘official’ name, and so you could have more than one names (which makes digging through classical Muslim texts a little difficult).

  3. freethinker Says:

    correction: names would NOT be of much significance.

    I think I have ADD.

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