The Surname Problem

The Surname Problem (and our solution)


My lovely cousin Scott recently visited the grave of my great-great-great-grandfather, the last of my Drysdale ancestors to be buried in Scotland, before his widow and children emigrated to New Zealand in the 19th century.

A cousin of my Dad’s had done the sleuthing to find the unmarked grave in the 1970s and wrote a summary of the family story as far as he knew it. Scott included that document in his email on his own search, and it reminded me of things I’d forgotten or never known about this branch of my family.


Old Polmont Church. The Surname Problem (and our solution)

My cousin Scott’s photograph of Old Polmont parish church, where William Drysdale is buried.


Drysdale is my Grandma‘s maiden name and my Dad’s middle name, so the story of this line of my ancestors has always stuck more in my consciousness than some of the others. What struck me this time was reading that my great-great-grandfather, James Drysdale, who emigrated as a young adult with his mother and siblings, met his wife, Kate Woodward, on the ship.

And that’s how I instinctively think of her: his wife. Of course, she’s actually my great-great-grandmother, and maybe I even have her eyes or nose or sense of humour. She was from Wiltshire, where I’ve seen the baptismal font another set of ancestors were sprinkled from, whose surname I carry, but I never realised I had another grounding in that county. All because her name was snuffed out when she married.

This is the surname problem, for me. I feel more connected to the men in my family tree, whose antecedents I can recite back to the Old Country, because their names are repeated and handed down through the generations. I cherish the feeling of connection I have with the Scotsman buried at Old Polmont church, because his name is so familiar to me. I just wish I felt so close to the women in my family tree, and their male ancestors.

My Mum has done some genealogical research for us, so thankfully I was able to look through and be reminded that if naming worked differently in our culture I could also be a Taylor, a Woodward, a Busch, a Rankin, a Neal, an Oslington, a Harvey, a Raper, a Grebin, a Matthews, a Smith, a Williams, a McGarr or a Frazer.

Beagley, Brickenden, Collins, Greenvil, Schueneman, Markohms: of course the list is enormous (and we can see more of it thanks to tools like Someone reading is bound to be a long-lost cousin, as we’ll find out now that I’ve written that list. Is your surname MacDonald, McDougald, Binnie, Beaton, Waddell or Stuart? How about McStravick, Graham, Bolton, Nichols, Sadler, Pooly, Moles, Ewing, Anderson or Oates? Get in touch!

When my husband and I were married, our friend who was the celebrant didn’t announce us with our new surnames to the congregation, because we hadn’t yet decided what to call ourselves, despite hours and months of conversations about it. Being married helped, though, and we decided before the reception.

There is no perfect, practical solution in our culture. We have gone for the admittedly unsustainable double-barrel approach, combining our two surnames. So we and our son all have the same unwieldy, unpronounceable surname, and our poor boy will have trouble if he wants to marry someone one day and do the same thing. But we’re happy to leave it to him to figure out.

What I like about our choice is that our boy will feel like he belongs equally to all his grandparents, because he shares all their surnames. He still won’t feel terribly connected to the Woodwards, Busches or Rankins, probably, so perhaps that will feed his own discontent with patriarchy.

There’s more to say about the surname problem another day, of course: the class implications of double-barrelling in the United Kingdom, the ways different cultures pass on names, the various feminist and non-feminist options. More than with most of my strongly-held beliefs, I do see that in the absence of sensible, generationally-sustainable feminist solutions, we all have to choose something with drawbacks, whether you’ve done the traditional husband’s name thing or something else. It also seems much less common to do something untraditional in the UK than in New Zealand, by a long way.

That’s all by way of saying I’d love your thoughts on the issue, but please don’t feel you have to defend your decision or critique someone else’s. None of us has the perfect answer on this one, sadly. And please get in touch if we might be related! Any long-lost McStravicks out there?

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The Surname Problem (and our solution)

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18 comments on “The Surname Problem”

  1. Rachael W Reply

    I just wanted something easy to spell, which my maiden name (Nancekivell- try telling that to someone over the phone) most definitely was not! So I ditched it at the drop of at hat when Matthew came along πŸ™‚ I do feel a little sad that maybe the name will die out unless my brother has kids, as he is the only so of an only son ( of this branch at least- there are one or two others in NZ and a whole raft in the UK and Canada, I think).
    I also figure that it is only one of many paternal names that you end up taking (traditionally) so it doesn’t bother me too much that it is none of the maternal names- the decision has to be made somehow and it may as well be that way if that’s the way it’s always been.

  2. Cate S Reply

    You may have complicated things for James from a surname perspective, but it sounds like you all are already doing well with sharing family narratives. This last is the secret to happy families according to this guy: This was a perspective that I’d never really considered before, but it makes sense: a child that is grounded with a sense of place in the wider world may be more secure to venture out in it.

  3. Daina Reply

    I took my husband’s name socially (as was expected from a traditional family) but continued for some time using my maiden name at work as I already had a publication record under that name. Unfortunately they didn’t sound good hyphenated and I wanted to avoid the double-barreled confusion that could crop up later. My brother is probably not going to have children so sadly there won’t be another generation to carry on my Father’s name. I wanted to use my maiden name as a first name if I ever had a son, but between already having a cousin of that name, my Mother remarrying a man with that name and there already being one in my husband’s extended family (and it not going well with the surname I think) I couldn’t. So my middle son has it as his middle name and that’s the best I could do. It does sadden me that my identity of 30 years has sort of been erased by changing my name but I have to look to the future and not the past. I suppose I value being part of a couple with the same name more than stubbornly hanging onto the old one.

  4. Bekah Reply

    I dont feel conected to any of my ancestors except for my grandmother’s parents. With mum estranged from her family I have only questions about the sources of half my genetics. It was my Grandmother who told me stories of her parents and wider family – so I feel like a McNeill with Ledgerwood roots, and hardly a Drew at all really. Hence it was quite easy to take husband’s name, though it is rather a pest that no one can spell Noakes. Names are surely have meaning and its symbolic that we traditionally pass them down the male line, however for me, sense of belonging and family name are only very faintly related.

  5. Spaghetti Reply

    Having grown up feeling much more strongly connected to my mothers’ side of the family, I still feel a great sense of pride in my surname. I’m fortunate to have parents who valued family history so know a fair bit about all 4 grandparents & their stories. Being unmarried, I haven’t had to grapple with changing my name but suspect I’d find it really quite difficult. Adding to that the fact there are no next-generation male descendants with this surname, I feel quite gutted that it will die out in this particular line. Having said that, I do still also strongly identify with the other 3 grand-parental surnames and I think the key to keeping names alive, is to teach the history behind the name to the next generation. I was quite chuffed to discover that “How to look at a painting” presenter Justin Paton is my 5th cousin – very distant, but because my grandmother was a Paton, there’s a sense of connection and sense of family with others who share that name. So, I guess a name is important, but it’s knowing what’s behind that name that makes it special.

  6. Matthew Reply

    In Egypt they have an interesting way of doing things. They don’t have middle and last names per se, but rather add the names of their paternal parents to 4 or 5 generations back. I know the female line is missed out, but perhaps a modified version could be more balanced.

  7. Alex Reply

    I have a feeling anything I say is going to sound a little defensive…
    I had always assumed I would never change my name, and used to argue quite passionately against it. I think had I been in a position where I’d carved any sort of career standing before I got married, I would have probably kept my maiden name, at least for professional purposes. In the event, though, I think I just chose to look forward rather than back and felt strongly that I wanted the same surname as my husband and (in those days potential) children. Double barrelling really wasn’t an option with our combination of names (Clarke-Georgescu anyone?! – in contrast to Rachael, I’ve changed to one that people seem to find much harder to spell…!) Similarly to some of your other commenters, I justified my choice further by the thought that my maiden name was only representative of half of my father’s family in any case, and not the sum of my identity… But I do feel a little sad that now all three of my sisters and I have changed our names that’s it for this branch of Clarkes. Strangely, perhaps, we didn’t even consider using family names for our son, but my daughter has my mother’s middle name (which was, in turn, her grandmother’s name) so there’s a link of sorts there somewhere.
    But you’re quite right. There are no ideal solutions.

  8. Jenny Bucksmith Reply

    Growing up a Smith and on the other side of the world to my relatives, I never felt a great sense of connection or loyalty to my surname. I have always been closer to my mum’s side of the family and that was what was important to me. Saying that, as a girl I dreamed of marrying someone with a fantastically exotic surname I could inherit. Instead my husband and I combined our names to make one new surname – Bucksmith. Someone in the UK once told Michael what a good old British name we had! He didn’t’have the heart to say we’d made it up! πŸ™‚

  9. lulastic Reply

    Oh wow this is an amaIng post! So beautiful and articulate and much more persuasive for the feminist name cause than my own ramblings!

  10. Lucy Reply

    I’m unmarried as I don’t believe in marriage. My parents both have the same surname (my mum took my dad’s name) so they went the traditional route, but I am very feminist so I changed my last name by using my middle name as a surname. That way I have a female surname rather than a male one. I just really rejected the idea of having either your father’s or husband’s name…are those the only choices for women…be owned by one man or another? I thought that was sexist so I changed my name and my dad threw me out and my entire family rejected me. I bet if I’d got married and changed my name they’d have congratulated me. Clearly I come from a family of sexists!

  11. Stacey Reply

    I’ve taken my husband’s name. Probably would do the same again if we were getting married now. I’m a fairly traditional body for a start, and I like doing things that carry on the family traditions. Our children all have first and middle names that reference significant people on both sides of the family, and we both wanted the family unit all to have the same surname.

    Hub’s older brother had also already changed his name to his wife’s, so a further consideration was that, although the name itself is hardly an uncommon one (we’re everywhere!), in his particular branch of the family, going back 3 generations, he was now the only male with that surname. So the idea that we would likely be producing the only offspring to carry the name into the future was big for his grandparents, I must say πŸ™‚ In combination with my not really caring, the decision was easily made.

    It was a conversation that we *had*, though – not something that we just both assumed would happen.

    There is a cousin in the family where the plan was for each partner to keep their own names, and boy children would have his surname, and girl children would have hers, which is pretty cool, thought. They only had boys, though, so most people don’t know quite how cool the set-up really is πŸ™‚

  12. K Reply

    I moved to the U.S. (my husband’s country) when we married, and felt like I’d given up enough so chose not to change my name. The idea of changing my name felt like an inequitable sacrifice, but while it’s easy to forget now, but I did consider it.
    I found the U.S. much more traditional than the U.S. and was surprised how often I was expected to defend my decision, often to acquaintances or strangers. Despite my frustration (my answer was “neither of us wanted to change our name”) that experience made me glad I kept my birth name.
    We’ve since moved home to NZ and I’ve found myself working in a tertiary education department, where the only women who’ve changed their name (without exception) are over 60 or born overseas.
    Our children have my husband’s surname, and I have no problem with this because they have fewer physical ties to his side of the family. The children see so many different examples of naming conventions that I don’t think they attach belonging based on names at all, in the early (primary school) stage of their lives.

  13. Annette Reply

    My mother-in-law’s maiden name is Oates and she lives in England πŸ™‚ I moved my maiden name to my middle name and took my husband’s last name. My son also has my maiden name as his middle name πŸ™‚

  14. Laurenne Reply

    Great post Thalia. We didn’t think too much about it at the time, and I was glad to lose my surname on a practical level (maiden name was O’Connor and the apostrophe was a nightmare for breaking online forms haha). But then a few years later my dad died (my parents were divirced) and since then I’ve felt a sad occasionally about the loss of my surname and connection to that side of my family.

    Perhaps we’d have gone double barrell or combined the two a la lulastic if we had our time again. But the thought of changing 5 passports an everything else etc now brings me out in a cold sweat!

  15. Amanda Reply

    When my husband & I married I took his last name, after much discussion, mostly to show respect to his elderly & very traditional father & because there were no other siblings to continue the name. I’m happy enough to leave it at that but was inspired by someone I know: She & her partner weren’t married when they had children & each of their children was given a first, middle & last name all of their own!

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