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The authors of this essay on names have just identified themselves. Well, not quite. For the sake of full disclosure, they are willing to have it known that they have the same last name not by coincidence or consanguinity but because they are married to each other (and have been for over thirty-four years). Some will suspect that this biographical fact is responsible for the authors’ attitudes toward names and naming. The authors respectfully submit that the reverse is closer to the truth, that their attitude toward names and naming—and the many things that they have slowly come to understand about what names imply—is responsible for this paramount biographical fact. This essay is a first attempt to articulate, not least for themselves, what they have tacitly understood.


Everybody has a name. Nearly everybody who has a name knows what it is. Our name is as familiar and as close to us as our own skin; indeed, we are more frequently aware of our name than we are of the unique living body that it identifies. We write it, speak it, answer to it-often, immediately, surely, unreflectively. We generally take our name for granted. But, for these reasons, in a deeper sense we may not really know our name—what it means, why we have it, how it should be regarded and used. Paradoxically, by dint of being so familiar, the manifest mystery of our named identity may have become invisible to us. We name ourselves and others, but do we really know what we are doing when we do so?

To name is to identify. But what this means depends on the meaning of names, the meaning of identity, and the relation between the name and the thing named. Most common names, unlike personal names, are merely pointers, holding no deeper meanings for the named. A rose by any other name would surely smell as sweet. The lion were he called a lamb would still be king of beasts. And human beings, whether known as anthropoi, viri, beney adam, or menschen, remain unalterably rational, animal, and just as mortal. Like the names that Adam gave the animals, these names designate but do not determine the thing. They are merely conventional handles for grasping the beings handled, which, because they are already naturally distinct and distinctive, beg only to be recognized with names peculiarly their own. In naming beings distinctively we do little more than acknowledge the articulated and multiform character of the given world.

Not all acts of naming are so innocent. Sometimes they actually shape and form the things they name. Such creative naming is, for example, especially characteristic of the biblical God, Who, in the account of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis, names five things: light, darkness, the firmament, the dry land, and the gathered waters. As Robert Sacks observes,

We can best grasp the significance of naming by comparing the things God named with the names God gives them. Light was called day, darkness was called night. The firmament was called heaven, the dry place was called land, the water was called sea. Darkness is not light, water is not dry. What more does a name add? The Hebrew word translated “firmament” which God called heaven comes from the root meaning “to beat.” Workmen pound copper until it spreads out into a thin amorphous sheet, then form it and cut it and give it shape. Light and darkness, wet and dry, like the thinly pounded sheet of copper, seem to be an indefinite morass, each having its own quality, but each spreading out beyond the human imagination. But the day ends when night comes and the seas end at the shoreline, and the firmament becomes a whole when it becomes the sky. Without names, there would still be distinctions. There would be love and there would be hate, but bravery would shade off into foolhardiness, and we would lose the clarity of thought.

God’s naming clarifies, delimits, bounds, shapes, and makes intelligible. Like the creation itself, which proceeds by acts of speech (which are in turn always acts embodying and producing separations), these acts of naming bring order to chaos, the discrete to the continuous, definition to the indefinite, shapely and recognizable form to the merely qualitative.

Human naming, though perforce an act of speech and hence of reason, is, however, frequently colored by human passions such as fear, pride, hope, and lust. The names Adam gave the animals may have been disinterested, but not so the names he gives to himself and to the woman when she is brought before him: “This now is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; and this shall be called woman (ishah) because she was taken out of man (ish).” Previously called (by God and by the narrator) adam, human being (adam is not a personal name but a species name), the man now names himself “male human being,” ish, in relation to “female human being,” ishah. It is her (naked) appearance before him (“before him” both literally and lexically, in his quoted speech) that makes him feel his maleness; the carnal remark “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” strikes us as the verbalization of sexual desire; the man looks upon the woman as if she were his missing half, to which he now feels powerfully drawn in a desire for fusion. At the very least, one must admit that his delight in her leads him to exaggerate the degree to which she is “his own,” more same than other, and to see her as an exteriorized portion of himself. This is not the voice of pure reason naming; and the name, born of his desire, has consequences for their relationship.

Later, a different passion will lead the man to rename the woman, this time without reference to himself. Hearing in God’s grim prophecy of the dismal human future (sorrow, sweat, toil, and death) the only good news, namely, that the woman will bear children, he grasps at this straw of hope, renaming the woman Eve (Chavah) because she is the mother of all living (chai). From Adam’s hopefulness Eve gets the first genuinely proper name given in the Bible.

What, then, is the case with our proper names, our personal names, the names we carry throughout our lives? Are they merely arbitrary and conventional handles that serve simply to designate and uniquely pick us out of a crowd? Or do our names, like those given by God, have power to shape our lives? Which passions do and should govern acts of naming: When we name, do we express desires for ourselves (ishah) or hopes for the future of others (Chavah)? Is it a matter of substantial indifference what we are called, what we call ourselves, or what we call others?

As we do not (generally) name ourselves, we normally do not encounter these questions in our daily lives. True, as Americans, sharing in the English common law of names, we have the right freely to change our names, as often as we please, and not a few young people take advantage of this privilege. But it rarely even occurs to most of us that we could change our names; we accept without question what we have been given and we unthinkingly regard changing our given name as like violating a sacred order. But this seemingly “given” order of names is, in fact, the product of conscious human choice. Thus, all the questions about the meaning of naming clearly do confront us, at least implicitly, when we name our children.

The first gift of parents to a child, after the gift of life itself, is its name. Like the given life it names, the given name is a gift for a lifetime-indeed, for more than a lifetime; when we are gone, our name carved in stone and the memories it evokes will be, for nearly all of us, all that remains. Here is a gift that is not only permanent but possibly life-shaping. Here is a gift that cannot be refused; here is a gift that cannot easily be put aside; here is a gift that must be worn and that straightway not only marks but constitutes one’s identity.

On what basis does one select a gift, especially a gift of such importance? Generally speaking, one gives gifts that one thinks someone will like and appreciate, or one gives gifts that one thinks will be fitting and suitable, or one gives gifts that one thinks will be helpful and good. But in the gift of a name, even more than with other gifts to the newborn (as clothing or toys), one has no idea whatsoever which name will prove likable, which name will prove suitable, which name will be helpful to the human being who, at the time of naming, is virtually unknown and unknowable, and largely pure potentiality. The awesome mystery of individuated human life announces itself in this nameless and unknowable stranger, who must nonetheless be called by a proper name. Faced with our invincible ignorance, we parents are forced to consult our own thoughts and feelings, though, it is to be hoped, without in the least forgetting the future welfare of our child. Though we necessarily will be moved by what pleases or suits or inspires us, we do well when we remember that it is the child who must live with and live out the identity we thus confer upon him or her.


Some of the considerations that might reasonably enter into choosing a name are obvious. Parents will want a name that, in conjunction with the family name, is euphonic, or, at least will not sound bad (the authors rejected on this basis their first-choice name for a daughter, Rebekah Kass: too many “ka”s). Parents will avoid names that could easily become the object of ridicule (for example, the authors would never have named a son Jack) or that would in other ways be likely to be burdensome to or resented by a typical child. Here parents will no doubt be guided both by their imaginations and by their own experience: They will surely remember the miseries inflicted by cruel or insensitive peers on one or another of their childhood acquaintances who had been saddled with a name too unusual, too pretentious, too quaint, too prissy, too foreign, or too stained by one of its disgraceful namesakes. Some parents, to avoid the dangers that befall those who stand out, especially among the conformist young, may well refrain from giving a name that is utterly without precedent—for it may not find in the child that gets it the strength to stand alone and apart. On the other hand, some parents, seeking to avoid the commonplace, may opt for something out of the ordinary, a name with charm or class or appealing novelty, implying thereby the wish to help the child gain distinction. In such matters, different parental choices will no doubt reflect reasonably differing parental attitudes toward the balance between standing out and standing within, between distinction and inclusion, between risk and safety.

Parents who give the matter some thought will try to choose a name that wears well not only during childhood but, even more, also during adulthood; for we bear our names much longer as adults than as children. Some names that are cute when worn in infancy or childhood seem ridiculous when attached to mature—or elderly—men and women. Connected with this matter of fitness are also considerations of likely nicknames and diminutives, both those to be given at home and those likely to be acquired at school or at play. One feels for the little fellow in postwar Shaker Heights whose pretentious, upwardly mobile Jewish parents named him Lancelot, and even more because they could not refrain from calling him by the affectionate (and standard) diminutive—which resounded through the streets when they called him in from play—”Lancelotkele.” (“Latkele,” gentle reader, is Yiddish for a small potato pancake, eaten traditionally at Hanukkah).

But these considerations are largely negative and serve mainly to prevent mistakes. They do not guide the positive choice. How then do we choose?

Whether we know it or not, the way we approach this serious, indeed awesome, task speaks volumes about our basic attitudes not only toward our children but also toward life. For we can name, just as we can live, in a spirit of self-indulgence and enjoyment, in a spirit of acquisition and appropriation, in a spirit of pride and domination, in a spirit of creativity, in a spirit of gratitude, in a spirit of blessing and dedication. Consider a few of these possibilities.

One could give the child a name that pleases us. How could that be bad? You find your child a delight, so why not celebrate this fact with a name you find delightful? The wanted child is rewarded for being wanted by getting the wanted name, and now proves doubly pleasing to the parents. Granted, no parent who loves a child would choose for it a name he or she does not like. But is this sufficient? And what if the parent has strange tastes? A teacher of our acquaintance recently taught twin girls named—we do not jest—Lem0njello and Orangejello, after Lemon and Orange Jell-O, perhaps the mother’s favorite food. The flavors of the parents are visited upon the children. But, on this principle of pleasing the parental palate, who can criticize? De gustibus non disputandum.

One could also give the child a name that pleases us because it pleases others, that is, because it is fashionable or popular. American fashions in first names change dramatically, especially for naming little girls. Rarely does one encounter anymore a young woman named Prudence, Constance, Faith, Hope, or Charity—though biblical names have come somewhat back into vogue. No one we knew—or had even heard of—through our first thirty years was named Tiffany or Chelsea. Yet the ten most popular newly given girls’ names in New York City for 1992, as reported on records of new births, were (in order of popularity): Ashley, Stephanie, Jessica, Amanda, Samantha, Jennifer, Nicole, Michelle, Melissa, and Christina. (Challenge your friends who are over fifty, or who live in the sensible Midwest, to see if they can guess even three of the top ten.)

Curiously, the popular boys’ names continue to be traditional: New York’s top ten are Michael, Christopher, Jonathan, Anthony, Joseph, Daniel, David, Kevin, Matthew, and John. What this difference in boy-girl naming fashions means, especially in an age that purports at last to take women seriously, we leave for our readers to ponder.

Frivolity, self-indulgence, and love of fashion may not be the worst of attitudes. Other parents, more serious, will be moved by pride, not least by pride in the creation of a child. This may well be the paradigmatic natural attitude of parents, perhaps especially so with first-born children. Paternal pride in siring a chip off the old block leads fathers to name their first son after themselves, only Junior. But pride in childbirth is not the prerogative only of fathers. In the first (and, therefore, in our view probably prototypical) human birth presented in Genesis, Eve proudly boasts of her creative power in the birth of Cain: “And she conceived and bore Cain (kayin), saying, ‘I have gotten (kaniti) a man [equally] with the Lord.’” (Most English translations have Eve say, piously, “with the help of the Lord,” but this is an interpolation. The context, in our view, favors this meaning: “God created a man, and now so have I.”) And, at first glance, why should she not be proud? She conceived, she carried, she labored, and she delivered, in short, she created a new life out of her own substance, a new life that is her own flesh and blood. Her pride in her creativity and “own-ership” of her son is celebrated in the name she gives him: kayin, from a root kanah, meaning to possess, perhaps also related to a root koneh, meaning to shape or make or create.

Cain, the pride of his mother’s bearing, bears the name of his mother’s pride, and tragically lives out the meaning of the name his mother gave him, the meaning, unbeknownst to her, of her tacit wish for him. He becomes a proud farmer, the sort of man who lays possessive claim to a portion of the earth, proud of his ability to bring forth fruit from the ground. He becomes a man who, his pride wounded, angrily kills his brother to reassert his place as number one. (When Eve, almost as an afterthought, had borne “his brother Abel,” there had been no celebration or boasting; she gave to him, unwittingly but prophetically, a name that means “breath that vanishes.”)

Eve, it seems, learns the folly of her naming ways. Chastened by the death of Abel and left bereft by the banishment of Cain, Eve renames her third son in a different, more humble, and grateful spirit: “And she called his name Seth, ‘for God hath appointed [shath] me another seed in place of Abel, whom Cain slew.’” (Emphasis added.) With death and the need for replacement now manifest before her, Eve this time enters upon the act of naming and parenthood in full awareness of the human condition, in full awareness that children are not human creations, in full self-consciousness of what it means to give a name (the word “name” and the phrase “called his name” were not used in the report of the births of Cain and Abel).

Despite their differences, naming as self-gratification, naming as appropriation, naming as expressing pride, and naming as creativity have this in common: They all take their meaning from and refer back to the activities of the parents. They do not centrally consider the independent being of the child, or the meaning of the child understood as one who must someday stand forth as the parents’ replacement. Considerations such as these at least tacitly inform the activity of naming for those parents who seek by means of the name to express, in full seriousness, their best hopes and wishes for the child. Such parents will choose a name that imparts personal or human meaning. They may stress continuity of family line, by naming a son for the father, a daughter for a grandmother. They may memorialize some worthy friend or ancestor, whose fine qualities they hope to see replicated in the child. They may name after prophets or saints or other historical or literary figures, in the hope of promoting emulation or at least admiration through namesake identification. In these various ways, parents identify their children not with themselves but with what they look up to and respect. In such namings, parents, at the very least, express their fondest hopes-blessing, as it were, their children through names of blessed memory or elevated standing. At best, they thereby dedicate themselves to the work of making good the promise conveyed in the good name thus bestowed.

The solemnity of such naming, and its meaning as dedication, is, of course, evident when names are given within religious ceremonies. At a baptism, the newborn child is symbolically purified, sanctified, and received by name into the Christian community, obtaining his or her name in an act of christening or baptizing. The child is reborn by being named in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, an implicit promise by the parents to rear the child in the ways of the Lord. Among its other intentions, baptism denies the parents’ natural tendency to think of the child as property or as an object of pride and power. During the ceremony, the parents ritually hand the child over to the minister or to godparents, representatives of the church and community, literally enacting the meaning of naming as dedication. The name given is understood to be eternal, inscribed in the Book of Life.

At a brith milah, the Jewish act of ritual circumcision, male children on the eighth day of life enter into the covenant between God and the seed of Abraham, obtaining at this time their given Hebrew name (here, too, the boy is handed over to the godfather for the ceremony); daughters are publicly named in the synagogue soon after birth. Often, the meaning of the name and the reasons for its choice are publicly discussed as the name is given. The prayer for both Jewish sons and daughters that accompanies their naming is for a life that embraces Torah (learning and observance), Chuppah (marriage and family), and Maasim Tovim (good deeds). Names given in such contexts are, at least implicitly, understood to be sanctifications and dedications.

It is, of course, not possible to gauge the spirit of the act of naming simply from the name given. The name of a beloved forebear may be perpetuated not because of what made him lovable but, say, because of benefits received by the namer or as a result of family expectation or as an expression of mere sentimentality. In a family we know, for example, a man named his son after his deceased father, a man of unrivaled goodness and gentleness, admired and loved by everyone who knew him, without exception or qualification. As it happens, the boy not only carries the grandfather’s name; because he is and will be the only male child of his generation, the entire family name resides now with him. But such thoughts are alien to, even resisted by, his father, who believes that the past must be happily buried. No attempt has been made to teach the son anything about the grandfather-about his life, his character, his beliefs. Not before the boy was thirteen did he get to see a photograph of the man for whom he was named, and then only by accident in another relative’s house. The boy’s father, a radical, preaches and encourages distrust of tradition and authority, and now finds the teenage chicken coming home to roost. Here we have the name, ringing hollow, without a grain of the legacy. The name, like the grandfather, was liked, not revered or even properly appreciated. The child, not surprisingly, has grasped and inherited the paternal principle: “The past is dead, follow your likes.” Already separating himself from his own past, he sets out to create his own identity, making himself into whatever he wishes.

Parents should, however, be mindful of the gap between hope and fact, between promise and realization. Especially when the dream implicit in the name is great, there is a danger that the name will be to the child more a burden than an inspiration. On this ground, a prospective name for our son (never born), favored by one of us, Abraham Lincoln, was vetoed by the more sensible spouse. Nature may not be cooperative, native gifts may be missing, serious illness or accident may deform and limit, and, even in the most propitious circumstances, parental plans and aspirations—even modest ones—often go unrealized, not least because well-meaning and devoted parents sometimes fail to recognize sufficiently the radical individuality of each child. For this reason, one names best when one names not only with dedication but also with modesty and humility, mindful of the child’s separate identity and ultimate independence. The identity given by means of the given name de facto recognizes and celebrates the uniqueness of the life its bearer will live.

Naming a child thus anticipates exactly the central difficulty of child-rearing altogether: how to communicate unconditional love for the child-just-as-he-now-is, at the same time as one is doing all in one’s power to encourage and to help him to become better (which is to say, more truly lovable). A name, likable here and now but also bearing hope and promise, fits the good-enough-but-potentially-much-better kind of being that is the human child (indeed, is the human being throughout life). Defining the child now but also for later, the given but independent name also looks forward to the time when—thanks to good rearing—he will be able to write his own named account in the Book of Life.

The given name, given seriously, thus provides identity and individuality but within family and community; recognizes continuity with lives of the past but bears hopes and promises for the new life in the future; embodies general aspiration but acknowledges individual distinction; reflects both present affection and desire for future improvement; acknowledges at least tacitly that one’s child is to be one’s replacement; celebrates the joyous wonder of the renewal of human possibility while accepting the awesome responsibility for helping that possibility to be realized; and pays homage to the mysterious source of human life and human individuality.

In all these ways, the naming of a child is, in fact, an emblem of the entire parent-child relation, in both its human generality and its radical particularity. Human children are born naked and nameless, like the animals; they become humanized only through rearing, the work not of nature but of acts of speech and symbolic deed, including praise and blame, reward and punishment, custom, habituation, and education. They become humanized, in the first instance, at the hands of parents, who, among other duties, try steadily to teach children how to call all things by their proper names and to show them how to acquire a good name for themselves.


Mention of calling things by their proper names prompts a digression on the proper usage of proper names, itself a central issue of propriety. In fact, it was observations on the prevalent use and misuse of given or first names that, long ago, aroused our interest in the subject of naming in the first place.

As amateur observers of the American social scene, we are struck by how much more of our public social life is nowadays conducted on a first-name basis. The open-faced waiter in the yuppie restaurant begins not with, “Good evening. Are you ready to order?” but with, “Hi, I’m Sherman. I’m your server this evening, and I’d like to tell you about our specials.” The gynecologist and all members of his staff (including the barely post-adolescent receptionist) call all the patients by their first names, even on first encounter. In the home for the aged, venerable ladies and gentlemen are uniformly called Sadie or Annie, Herman or Mike, by people who will never know a tenth of what some of the elderly have forgotten. Small children are not taught to call uncles and aunts Uncle Leon and Aunt Amy, but plain Leon and Amy. Children of all ages are generally allowed to call all grown-up guests in the home by their first names, even on first meeting. At social mixers, the typical tag is for first names only: “Hello, My Name is Steffie.” Total strangers, soliciting for stock brokerages or the local police museum, call during dinner oozing familiarity, asking to speak to Leon or Amy (not knowing that they have thus completely blown their slim chance of success). Students introduce themselves to one another, to their teachers, or to the parents of their friends by first names only. Even some college professors and many members of the clergy prefer to be called by their first names, even when in class or in church and synagogue.

The motives for and reasons behind such increased familiarity are numerous and sometimes complex, and surely vary from case to case. A policy favoring forward but easy amiability, thought useful for putting everyone in a good mood and making them feel at home, is no doubt part of the waiter’s conduct; but there is probably also calculation that guests will be more inclined to leave a larger tip for a named “acquaintance” than for a merely anonymous servant. The gynecologist may believe he is creating a homey atmosphere that will overcome his patient’s anxieties and embarrassments; but he is culpably unaware that calling vulnerable strangers by their first names is patronizing, condescending, and unprofessional, that it contributes further to the indignity of being a patient, that most women receiving pelvic examinations will not be made more comfortable by a physician who makes himself improperly familiar, and that the patient’s unavoidable exposure and shame are precisely what demands that every effort should be made to uphold the patient’s dignity. Informality is thought to be a boon to equality and fellow-feeling; titles like Uncle and Aunt, or even Mr. or Ms., are distancing and hierarchical. They get in the way of easy sociability, made possible when everybody, regardless of age or station, is equally just plain Bill.

The change in usage, whatever one thinks of it, is symptomatic of a general breakdown of the boundaries between public and private life, between formal and familiar, between grown-up and childish, between high and low, refined and vulgar, sacred and profane. This leveling of boundaries is itself entirely American, which is to say, it is the result of the relentless march of the democratic spirit, under the twin banners of equality and individualism. But there is something novel and especially revealing—and also especially worrisome—in the self-identification of young students away from home at college.

When we were in college—at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and early 1960s—our teachers called us by our last names, usually prefaced by Mr. or Miss; in class, we were taught to refer to our peers—even our friends—in the same formal way. This civil convention, by the way, applied equally to the faculty: No one was Professor or Doctor, everyone was Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. We did not then fully appreciate the profound good sense of these customs, but we liked them nonetheless. No longer patronized as we had been by our teachers in high school, we were being treated respectfully, like grown-ups; indeed, in name (at least) we were superficially the equals of our instructors. This was flattering, this was encouraging; this, accordingly, induced emulation and a higher level of speech and conduct in the classroom.

But the purpose of this formal nominal equality was not, in fact, to flatter the students but to mirror and encourage our shared human work. Though we were encouraged to think and speak for ourselves, speech was not personalized and the person of the speaker was not authoritative; what the teacher said, and what we ourselves said, was given weight not because of the rank of the one who said it-for we were nominally of the same rank—but only because of its truthfulness or reasonableness. Shared logos, and the joint effort to understand, made the classroom a community of fellow-learners, not just an aggregate of sometimes overlapping, sometimes clashing personal interests. Objections and criticisms of one another were muted and civil: The casual language of the street, “Leon, you dolt,” was replaced by, “Mr. Kass, what is your evidence?” Familiarity, not to speak of intimacy, between teacher and student (or even between student and student) was neither assumed nor promised; like all real friendships, it had to be earned.

But though friendships with teachers occasionally developed, our eye was not on such personal matters. We were courting the greater self-respect that comes with adult accomplishment. To hear ourselves called after the manner of our parents (in the case of males, exactly as our fathers were called) dimly reminded us not only who we were and where we came from but also that we were stepping forward to prepare to take our parents’ place.

Now, teachers at the University of Chicago, we still continue these practices; we are known as Mrs. Kass and Mr. Kass, we call our male students Mr. and our female students Miss, Mrs., or Ms. (as they wish), and we insist that the students in class refer to one another in the same way. Our students do not protest, nearly all acquire the habit, and some have even told us how much they appreciate the contribution such civility makes to the atmosphere of learning.

But we are a vanishing breed. And we have noticed in recent years, outside of classes, a marked decline in student use of last names. If we attend a dinner in the dorms, if unfamiliar students come to office hours, if we overhear them introducing themselves to one another, we hear them give only their first names: “Hello, I’m Susie.” To be sure, this is friendliness, this is informality, this is individuality. But this is also, we believe, in many cases, a tacit but quite definite denial of their origins, of their roots in families. “Hello, I’m Susie” implicitly means “I am Susie, short for sui generis.” Changing usages regarding last names reflect changing mores regarding the meaning of last names, which in turn reflect—and may also contribute to—the changing structure of marriage and family life.


Last names or family names are of relatively recent origin in the West, becoming customary in England, for example, only toward the end of the sixteenth century. (In China, by contrast, an emperor already in 2852 b.c. decreed the universal adoption of hereditary family names.) Prior to that time, the given name, received usually at baptism, was the name of the person. To distinguish among persons who shared the same Christian name, surnames would be added, over and above the true name (sur, from super, “over” or “above”). Surnames had no standard meaning; they could be based on the father’s name (John’s son, O’Brien) or on one’s occupation (Weaver or Hunter), place of residence (Bristol, Lyons, At-Water), or an epithet capturing some striking personal trait or achievement (Little, Swift, Arm-Strong).

Only gradually, starting in the early medieval period, were many of these surnames turned into hereditary family names, beginning apparently in aristocratic families and in the big cities. A big impetus toward hereditary family names came after the Council of Trent (1563) decreed that every Catholic parish keep complete registers of baptisms, including the names of the parents and grandparents along with the name of the child. When Protestant parishes soon followed suit, this practice made nearly universal the spread and use of family names. It was not law but widespread similar custom which had it that a woman upon marriage would take the last name of her husband and that their children would then automatically bear the family name.

Despite many variations from country to country—about the order of family and given names, about middle names, about the incorporation of maiden names into a woman’s married name, etc.—it is now nearly universally the case that one’s personal name includes (at least) one’s given or individual name and one’s family name. The former, a matter of parental choice, marks one’s individuated identity within the larger family and signifies one’s path toward one’s own unique life trajectory; the latter, a matter of heritable custom, gives one a familial identity in relation to the larger social world and expresses one’s ties to and the influences of a shared ancestral past. Human individuation is contextualized within families, both families of origin and families of perpetuation. Last names are ever-present reminders that we were begotten and that we belong, and, later, that we belong in order to beget.

That a family name is centrally a sign of our connected and dignified humanity we see when such names are withheld—for example, in the practice of naming slaves in the ante-bellum South. Slaves were given only first names; if they had to receive a surname to distinguish one from another, it was John’s boy, never John’s son. The first name individuates, but separated from a last name, it is demeaning, even meaningless. By making one everywhere familiar, the practice of using only first names makes impossible both genuine public and genuine private life; as the slaveholders understood perfectly, it makes the childish station permanent.

Well before there were surnames as family names, the ties of blood and lineage were given expression in the form of patronymics. In their classical or heroic form, the patronym was even more important than the given name, with the son being under lifelong obligation to make himself worthy of his father and thus to earn, as it were, the title to his own name.

Homer, in beginning the Iliad, asks the goddess to sing the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilleus, who is first of interest precisely because he is the son of Peleus, himself the son of Aiakos, himself the son of Zeus. (On his mother’s side, Achilleus is even closer to the immortals; the goddess Thetis is his mother.) With lesser parents, in Homer’s world of heroes, Achilleus would have been a nonentity, one from whom nothing much would be expected. But given his pedigree, he is under strenuous obligation to live up to his name, thereby winning great glory also for his father. When Hektor, bouncing his infant son Astyanax, wishes for him that he will become an even greater warrior than his father, this wish must be heard as narcissistic: The son’s greatness will pile further glory upon his sire. Homer makes us feel immediately the tragic character of such paternal wishes for one’s sons; the reader knows that young Astyanax’s literal future is right here being sacrificed for his father’s present thirst for glory, as Hektor refuses his wife Andromache’s plea, in the name of family, not to return to the fighting. In these heroic cultures, the past casts a long shadow over the present and future; and most men die failing to match the recounted successes of illustrious ancestors. The patronym (or its equivalent family name), and through it the past, continued to exercise hegemony, albeit in somewhat muted form, in European aristocratic societies even into the present century.

We liberal democrats have mercifully escaped from this state of affairs. Our American society and its founding thought begin from the radical equality of each individual, including his inalienable right to practice happiness as he himself defines it. What counts for us is not birth or station, but one’s own accomplishments, not who one’s parents were but what one has made (and proposes to make) of oneself. Yet bourgeois democratic family life, with its naming practices, has preserved us, at least until recently, from the rootlessness and isolation to which such individuality might lead. The conventional identity of given name plus inherited family name, in the bourgeois family, represented a sensible mean between the heroic and the anonymous, between the aristocratic tyranny of the past (Peleus’ son) and the servile because rootless denial of a dignified adult future (Jim NoName).

Times have changed. Both as a culture and as individuals, we today care even less about where we come from, and also less and less about where we are going, but more and more only about the here and now. The ways of the fathers and mothers are not our ways. The ways of our children are unimaginable. Full individualists, and proud of it, we increasingly look solely to ourselves, as Tocqueville remarked over 150 years ago, as the sole source and reason for things. In the present generation, such individualistic thinking is showing its power against the institution of the family and customs of the family name.

Some time ago, the New York Times (January 21, 1993) featured an article by Janice L. Kaplan entitled “Creativity Is Often the Name of This Family Game.” In the article, Ms. Kaplan cites numerous examples of novel naming practices to illustrate her thesis that “for more and more of today’s parents, choosing a child’s last name is a matter of personal decision, a chance to be creative, even an opportunity to make a statement.” A few of her examples provide the flavor of them all.

When Elyse Goldstein, a rabbi, married Baruch Browns, a calligrapher and school administrator, they discussed what name they would “pass on” to their offspring. Both “absolutely wanted a family name” but one different from their own respective birth names, “a creative alternative to passing on only the father’s surname.” The solution: “They took the gold from Goldstein, the brown from Browns, mixed them together and created Sienna, the legal last name of their children.” As Mr. Browns explained, “Ocher, or those other muddy yellow colors, didn’t seem like nice names.”

Dean Skylar and Chris Ledbetter faced a similar dilemma, but not until the birth of their son. Opposed to “the whole patriarchal tradition,” they too wanted a new name for the child, different from their own names but one that would “symbolize [their] relationship.” Being residents of the state of Florida, which required parents to pass on the father’s surname, it took a court battle to legitimize their choice, but they eventually prevailed: they combined Ledbetter and Skylar to form Skybetter, the name of their two children, now ages ten and five. “All of our names are in the phone book,” said Ms. Ledbetter. “That handles most any problem that comes up.”

Ms. Van Horn, a commercial photographer and clinical hypnotherapist, and Ms. Hershey, owner of a design and marketing concern, were the first lesbians in Los Angeles County to be granted joint custody of a child. They gave their adopted son both their last names: hence, Ryan Christopher Hershey-Van Horn. As Ms. Van Horn explained, “We’re both his parents. We’re both women with careers. And we both have definite identities. It’s important that Christopher be real clear about his identity as well.”

Whether they make up an entirely new name for their children (Sienna), or creatively combine their names (Skybetter), or hyphenate their names (Hershey-Van Horn), all these parents reveal the same fundamental belief: A child’s last name is a matter of free, parental choice, no less than is its first name. Having liberated themselves from the “patriarchal tradition” of women giving up their names—none of the women interviewed took the man’s last name—all of these parents feel perfectly free to “liberate” their children as well. For what they have creatively managed to “pass on” is a name with no past; and the so-called “family” name is in no case the name of the entire family, but of the children only. The children are thus, already from birth, nominally (in the literal sense of the word) emancipated from all links to their parents, nominally identified as being unrelated to either parent, let alone to a married couple whose common name would symbolize the couple’s union in a new estate and its potential to be a unified family with offspring. These children have, in fact, been given two first names.

Ms. Kaplan observes that “sometimes, say experts and the children involved, the parents’ choices, if not clearly explained, can result in confusion and identity problems.” But the worries that are mentioned are superficial: children who can’t fit their names on a page or on SAT forms, children who can’t spell their last names, children at risk of teasing or ridicule by peers. For the “experts,” who want only that the child “develop an appropriate and healthy identity,” identity is entirely a subjective matter, but somehow one that yields to “rational understanding”; if the origin of the surname is “clearly explained” to the child (to be sure, “more than once”), there need be no confusion of identity.

But identity is not just a state of mind. All the explanations in the world cannot alter what the child’s name loudly declares: My parents and I belong to different families. Because this is how the child is named and known, his lack of a true family name is now central to his identity, whatever he may feel about it. That these creative parents sometimes justify their practice by pointing out that children of divorced and remarried parents or children of “live-in relationships” also don’t share the parental name, only proves the point: Taking broken or unmarried homes as a suitable nominal norm, and insisting on their own radically individuated identity, they start their children off in life with a broken family identity. It is almost as if they are preparing their children not only for the liberated life they have chosen for themselves, but also for the family fragmentation that now takes its toll of so many of America’s children.

These “creative” parents are, we suspect, still a very small minority. Far more common are families in which the children carry the name of the father, even though the mother has kept her maiden name. Here, too, the confusion of identity is obvious: it is not nominally clear who belongs to whom. A friend of ours, a mother of a highly popular first-grader, recently attended her first PTA meeting. Eager to meet the parents of the many frequent visitors to her home, she carefully scanned the name tags of all the people in the room. But on that night the room happened to be full of mothers only, none of whom bore the same last name as her child. Today, it is a wise child who knows its mother.

What’s wrong with all of this? Leaving aside, for now, the rightness or wrongness of the old so-called patriarchal conventions whereby the wife necessarily takes and the children automatically acquire the husband’s name, one can advance powerful arguments why, for reasons of truth and identity, a child’s family name should be the same as that of both his parents. The common name identifies the child securely within its nest of origin and rearing, and symbolically points to the ties of parental affection and responsibility that are needed for its healthy growth and well-being. Given that the mother-child bond is the (most) natural foundation of all familial attachments and parental care, it seems especially absurd that mothers should be willing not to have the same last name as their children-unless, of course, motherhood is understood to be nothing more than a surrogate “social womb,” unconnected with nature, the “mother” looking after the children simply as a job or as a form of self-fulfillment.

Responsibility for the child, who did not himself ask to be born, is accepted and announced by family naming: the child, freely individuated from birth (as marked in his given name), also belongs necessarily from birth to his parents, not as a possession to be used but as a precious life to be nurtured. Couples may choose whether to have a child, but they may not morally choose to deny familial responsibility for his care. A shared and transmittable family name, given and accepted rather than invented or chosen, stands perfectly for this shared and transmittable moral reality.

The common name of parent-and-child stands not only for parental responsibilities, but also for the child’s security, filial regard, family loyalty, gratitude, and personal pride. We children are not sui generis, neither self-made nor self-reared; we begin as dependents, dependent upon the unmerited attention and care lavished on us by our parents. To carry the family name is a constant reminder of what we owe and to whom—and of the fact that what we owe can never be repaid (except, indirectly, by doing the same for our own children). Thus, it is, at least symbolically, a special kind of blindness—not to say ingratitude—that our college students hold themselves familially innominate (“Just Susie”) precisely when Mom and Dad are shelling out $20,000 a year to enable them to become educated and independent.

But this backward-looking identification with our family of origin cannot be the whole story. On the contrary, life is forward-going and regenerative; in most cases, we children must leave our fathers and mothers and cleave to our spouses, in order to do as our fathers and mothers did before. The given family of origin gives way (not wholly but in very large part) to the chosen family of perpetuation, prepared for and legally sanctioned by the act of marriage. How should this new estate and new identity be reflected in our names? When we marry what surname or surnames shall we adopt?

Whether we like it or not, choosing surnames at marriage is in today’s America almost as much a matter of choice as the giving of first names at childbirth, a reflection (and perhaps also a cause) of novel conceptions of marriage, an institution the meaning of which is itself increasingly regarded as a matter of choice. The traditional bourgeois way—the husband gives and the wife accepts the husband’s family name—customary for at least four hundred years in the English-speaking world, is no longer secure as customary; “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is, for young American ears, a losing reason. Besides, the true reasons for the old custom having been forgotten, the practitioners of the custom are impotent to defend it against charges of “patriarchy,” “male hegemonism,” “sexism,” and the like. Thus, with no certain cultural guidance, the present generation (in fact, each couple independently) is being allowed—or should we say compelled, willy-nilly?—to think this through for itself.

We, the authors, accept the challenge, as a thought experiment, imagining ourselves as having to do it over again, but with the benefit of our now longer views of marriage and of life, and on the following additional condition: to think not on the basis of what pleases us, but on the basis of what we believe is appropriate to the meaning of marriage and hence, in principle, universalizable.

If marriage is, as we believe, a new estate, in fact changing the identities of both partners, there is good reason to have this changed identity reflected in some change of surname, one that reflects and announces this fact. If marriage, though entered into voluntarily, is in its inner meaning more than a contract between interested parties but rather a union made in expectation of permanence and a union open (as no simple contract of individuals can be) to the possibility of procreation, there is good reason to have the commitment to lifelong union reflected and announced in a common name that symbolizes and celebrates its special meaning.

Whether they intend it or not, individuals who individualistically keep their original names when entering a marriage are symbolically holding themselves back from the full meaning of the union. Fearing “loss of identity” in change of name, they implicitly deny that to live now toward and for one’s beloved, as soul mate, is rather to gain a new identity, a new meaning of living a life, one toward which eros itself has pointed us. Often failing to anticipate the future likelihood of having their own children, and, more generally, unable or unwilling to see the institution of marriage as directed toward or even connected with its central generational raison d’etre, they create in advance a confused identity for their unborn children.

The irony is that the clear personal identity to which they selfishly cling (in tacit denial of their new social identity) is in fact an identity they possess only because their parents were willing and able to create that singular family identity for them. We are, of course, aware that massive numbers of our youth stem from parents who divorce or remarry, and that the insecurity of identity already reflected in their having different names from their birth parents may lead them to cling tenaciously to their very own surnames, lest they lose the little, painfully acquired identity they have left; yet if they truly understood their plight, they would be eager to try to prevent such misfortunes from befalling their own children, and would symbolically identify themselves in advance as their (unborn) children’s lifelong parents.

It is ironic that the same young people who, in their social arrangements, live only on a first name basis, forgetful at least symbolically of where they come from, should at the time of forward-looking marriage turn backward to cling to the name of their family of origin. Faced with the “threat” of “losing themselves” in marriage, they reassert themselves as independent selves, now claiming and treating the original surname as if it were—just like their given first name—a chosen mark of their autonomy and individuality.

The human family, unlike some animal families, is exogamous, not incestuous; it is exogamous not by nature but by the wisest of customs. The near-universal taboo against incest embodies the insight that family means a forward-looking series of generations rather than an inward-turning merging and togetherness. It keeps lineage clear—in order, among other reasons, to distinguish spouses from progeny in the service of tranquil relations, clear identity, and sound rearing—above all, to accomplish the family’s primary human work of perpetuation and cultural transmission. The legal sanctification and support of marriage, a further expression of the insights embedded in the incest taboo, makes sense only on this view of family; were sex not generative and families not generational, no one would much care with whom one wished to merge.

Thus, when entering a marriage, the partners are willy-nilly bravely stepping forward, unprotected by the family of origin, into the full meaning of human adulthood: They are saying good-bye to father and mother and cleaving to their spouse. They are, tacitly, accepting the death of their parents, and even more, their own mortality, as they embark on the road to the next generation. They express not only their love of one another but also their readiness to discover, by repeating the practice, how their own family identity and nurtured humanity was the product of deliberate human choice that affirmed and elevated the natural necessity of renewal. A common name deliberately taken at the time of marriage—like the family of perpetuation that the marriage anticipates and establishes—affirms the special union of natural necessity and human choice which the exogamous family itself embodies.

This is, perhaps, an appropriate place to observe that we are well aware that family or social identity is not the whole of our identity, that professional or “career” identity is both psychically and socially important (as are civic and religious identity). The loving-and-generative aspects of our nature are far from being the whole human story. Yet the familial is foundational, and it cannot without grave danger be subordinated or assimilated to the professional. Our arguments for a common social name for the married couple is, however, perfectly compatible with having one partner or the other-or both-keeping a distinct professional name. Some have argued that in today’s world of rampant mobility and weakened family ties, and with both husband and wife in the work place, much is lost and little is gained if professional identity is submerged in a common family name. But precisely to affirm and protect the precious realm of private life from the distorting intrusion of public or purely economic preoccupations, a common social name makes eminent sense-one might say especially under present conditions.

The argument advanced so far does not, of course, yet reach to the customary pattern of the bride taking the groom’s name. If anything, it might even call into question the wisdom of allowing either partner to keep the surname of origin. To provide the same and new last name for the married couple, a name that proclaims their social unity and that will immediately confer social identity to their children, they could devise a hyphenated compound that both partners then adopt or they could jointly invent a totally new surname that leaves no trace of either family of origin. But these alternatives are both defective. The first is simply impractical beyond one or at most two generations; because of the exponential growth of life, one would have an exponential increase in names-to-be-hyphenated-in-new-marriages-and-in-newer-marriages-and-so-on-and-on-ad-infinitum. The structure of life itself makes impossible the universalizing of one’s maxim to add-and-hyphenate.

The second alternative, in our view, too starkly severs the new social ties from the familial past (quite apart from what it means to the public individual identities of each of the partners) and to still living and remembered grandparents. It would be to further accentuate the unraveling of intergenerational connections, symbolizing instead each little family’s atomistic belief in its ability to go it alone. In contrast, a family name that ties the new family of perpetuation to one old family of origin reflects more faithfully the truth about family as a series of generations and the moral and psychological meaning of lineage and attachment.

This leaves only the hard question: Shall it be his family name or hers? A little reflection will show why, as a general rule, it should be his. Although we know from modern biology the equal contributions both parents make to the genetic identity of a child, it is still true to say that the mother is the “more natural” parent, that is, the parent by birth. A woman can give up a child for adoption or, thanks to modern reproductive technologies, can even bear a child not genetically her own. But there is no way to deny out of whose body the new life sprung, whose substance it fed on, who labored to produce it, who wondrously bore it forth. The father’s role in all this is minuscule and invisible; in contrast to the mother, there is no naturally manifest way to demonstrate his responsibility.

The father is thus a parent more by choice and agreement than by nature (and not only because he cannot know with absolute certainty that the woman’s child is indeed his own). One can thus explain the giving of the paternal surname in the following way: the father symbolically announces “his choice” that the child is his, fully and freely accepting responsibility for its conception and, more importantly, for its protection and support, and answering in advance the question which only wise children are said to be able to answer correctly: Who’s my Dad?

The husband who gives his name to his bride in marriage is thus not just keeping his own; he is owning up to what it means to have been given a family and a family name by his own father—he is living out his destiny to be a father by saying yes to it in advance. And the wife does not so much surrender her name as she accepts the gift of his, given and received as a pledge of (among other things) loyal and responsible fatherhood for her children. A woman who refuses this gift is, whether she knows it or not, tacitly refusing the promised devotion or, worse, expressing her suspicions about her groom’s trustworthiness as a husband and prospective father.

Patrilineal surnames are, in truth, less a sign of paternal prerogative than of paternal duty and professed commitment, reinforced psychologically by gratifying the father’s vanity in the perpetuation of his name and by offering this nominal incentive to do his duty both to mother and child. Such human speech and naming enables the father explicitly to choose to become the parent-by-choice that he, more than the mother, must necessarily be.

Fathers who will not own up to their paternity, who will not “legitimize” their offspring, and who will not name themselves responsible for child-rearing by giving their children their name are, paradoxically, not real fathers at all, and their wives and especially their children suffer. The former stigmatization of bastardy was, in fact, meant to protect women and children from such irresponsible behavior of self-indulgent men (behavior probably naturally rooted in mammalian male psychosexual tendencies), men who would take their sexual pleasures and walk away from their consequences. The removal of the stigma, prompted by a humane concern not to penalize innocent children by calling them “illegitimate,” has, paradoxically but absolutely predictably, contributed mightily to an increase in such fatherless children.

The advantage a woman and her children gain from the commitment of the man to take responsibility and to stay the course—the commitment implied in his embracing the woman and her prospective children with his family name, now newly understood—is by itself sufficient reason why it is in a woman’s interest as a married-woman-and-mother-to-be to readily take the bridegroom’s name.

But there is a deeper reason why this makes sense. The change of the woman’s name, from family of origin to family of perpetuation, is the perfect emblem for the desired exogamy of human sexuality and generation. The woman in marriage not only expresses her humanity in love (as does the man); she also embraces the meaning of marriage by accepting the meaning of her womanly nature as generative. In shedding the name of her family of origin, she tacitly affirms that children of her womb can be legitimated only exogamously. Her children will not bear the same name as—will not “belong to”—her father; moreover, her new name allows also her father to recognize formally the mature woman his daughter has become. Whereas the man needs convention to make up—by expansion—for his natural deficiency, the woman needs convention to humanize—by restriction—the result of her natural prowess. By anticipating necessity and by thus choosing to accept the gift of her husband’s name, the woman affirms the meaning of her own humanity by saying yes to customizing her given nature.


Almost none of what they now believe they understand about the meanings and uses of names did the authors know when, following custom, they first joined their lives together under the bridegroom’s family name. They had, at best, only tacit and partial knowledge when they deliberately gave their children biblical names. Had they been left, in their youth, to invent their own practices of naming, it is doubtful that they would have gotten it right. In place of their own knowledge, they were guided by the blessed example of the strong, enduring, and admirable marriages and home-life of their parents, itself sustained by teachings silently conveyed through custom and ritual. Wisdom in these matters, for individual thinkers, comes slowly if at all. But custom, once wisely established, more than makes up for our deficiencies. It makes possible the full flourishing of our humanity.

William Butler Yeats said it best, in “A Prayer for My Daughter”:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

The authors are, respectively, Senior Lecturer in the Humanities Collegiate Division and Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought, The University of Chicago. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at a meeting on the Ethics of Everyday Life, sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life and supported by the Lilly Endowment. The authors wish to thank their colleagues for helpful criticisms and suggestions.

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