A Middle Path On the Surname Dilemma?

Oct 29th 2014

Ms. Smith and her husband Mr. Jones have a baby, Little Timmy. What should Timmy's surname be?

The situation is common, the answers many and contentious. In some cultures Timmy would simply use two surnames, but the United States expects him to have just one. The two most common approaches for U.S. parents are to hyphenate (Timmy Smith-Jones) and to choose one parent's surname, most often dad's (Timmy Jones). A scattering of parents combine their surnames in other ways, or use mom's surname as a first name, or give mom's name to daughters, dad's name to sons. Same-sex couples may face different social expectations for their surname choices, but their actual options for kids' names are much the same.

Whatever answer you might choose for your own family, you can probably see both the positives and negatives of each approach. For instance, using Dad's surname is simple and traditional, but it cuts out mom in a way that's unequal in the present, and an echo of historical disempowerment. Hyphenating is fairer, but it creates awkward surnames that match neither parent, and has the effect of passing off the problem onto your kids. (What happens when it's time for them to name children?)

A perfect solution may not be possible, but parents struggling with the standard options might be interested in a compromise that’s popping up on more and more school rosters. I'll call it the "three name solution": call one parent's surname a middle name and the other a surname, but use them both. So Little Timmy is "Timmy Smith Jones," known as...Timmy Smith Jones.

There's nothing groundbreaking here. The double surname with one part optional is familiar in the Spanish-speaking world. Even in English, using mom's surname as a middle name is an age-old custom and including that middle name in your self-identification is a classic way to highlight your family connections. You might think of it as a throwback to the age of men like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a scion of the influential Cabot family on his mom's side. Yet you might also hear a link to a very different three-name style: that of women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom the extra surname underlines their independent identities and accomplishments.

You could argue that the three name solution combines the drawbacks of the more common approaches. It still makes only one surname the heritable family name, and it still makes the kids say both surnames. What's more, it introduces new potential for confusion in a society that's accustomed to ignoring middle names.

Yet the virtues of the other approaches converge here as well. Timmy gets a simple, punctuation-free surname that he shares with one parent, and his name reflects his relationship to both. On an emotional level, that may feel more balanced. On a practical level, it should help ease the familiar irritations surrounding "I'm Ms. Smith, Timmy Jones's mom." For parents torn between hyphenating and not, that may be a welcome compromise.


October 29, 2014 11:00 AM

This is what my my husband and I plan to do with our twin girls, due any day now! The final thing we're still debating is whether to give them a second middle name as well, a different one for each of them, a more "fun" one, though I do like my last name as a pretty good middle!

October 29, 2014 4:56 PM

We did this instead of hyphenating our own names, when we married -- put one of our surnames in the middle slot, the other as the last name. I really love the flexibility of it - sometimes (often) I use both, but I can collapse down to the one surname when it's more convenient.

We ended up not continuing this for the children, but we thought about it. It has been a very satisfactory arrangement, and I recommend it!

October 30, 2014 11:14 AM

Actually, it is "little Timothy", and don't you dare shorten it!

October 30, 2014 12:46 PM

as someone in the medical field that has to deal with double surnames in patient records all the time, they are too much trouble. someone will use only both when they personally fill out official documents but verbally only use one name so a typist only knows that name. pretty soon there's doubles of the same person in the system and confusion everywhere. think using surnames as the official middle leaves out some of the naming fun when you could pick a bold choice for the middle. two surnames feels too standard, clinical, politically correct. like how many only refer to someone as them instead of he or she which in many cases makes for an awkward sentence.would rather a name with more flow and focus on the child than me.

October 30, 2014 12:41 PM

usually, the mother's last name comes from her father...so whether or not she changes her name or gives it to her children still reflects society's patriarchy.  (Even if she's made that name for herself.) 

We chose to give my husband's last name to our children, even though I would have liked to give them mine, because his was a smaller extended family.  It was less than satisfactory, but it was the compromise we made. 

I would like to adopt Miss Manners' idea, that surnames come from the matrilinial side.


By Cat4
October 30, 2014 1:15 PM

I wouldn't rush past the topic of same-sex couples so quickly. In a male-male couple, neither has been raised to accept second-place in the naming of his children.

For women who don't want to settle for the middle name spot either, seeing how gay men name their children is helpful. From what I've seen (in Boston), male couples usually choose hyphenated names.

October 30, 2014 1:16 PM

My husband & I have different surnames; our kids have dual, non-hyphenated surnames (for the sake of semi-anonymity, we'll say my surname is Vaporware and his is Llama; the kids are Vaporware Llama). 

We considered the Vaporware-as-middle solution, but there were other family names in play, including one that for historical reasons, we really wanted to keep alive (my husband's middle name, now our older child's middle). 

People keep asking us what the kids will do as adults, and we keep saying "but it's their name. They can do what they like."  It's not, as I see it, "passing off the problem onto your kids". We solved OUR problem; they'd have to solve a naming issue if they had kids no matter what we did, so how's it passing anything off? 

October 30, 2014 3:27 PM

I have a hyphenated last name, and it is terrible. It has caused so many technical difficulties in my life, and always will. Just a short list : I have been enrolled in college as two different people, each with one part of my last names. This has happened at multiple schools. My credit card doesnt include the hyphen,but my my ID does, so I often cannot buy things. My paperwork (school legal, otherwise), gets filed under the first letter of one or the other and can never be found in a decent amount of time.

Please, I ask all parents to just compromise and pick one last name for your child. You have no idea the frusteration that it will cause for them.

October 30, 2014 9:28 PM

My sister's husband has a surname that is spelled with a hyphen. Note the distinction: it's not a hyphenated name, but an adjective+locative type of surname where some misguided ancestor chose to write it with a hyphen instead of combining it all into one word like a sane person would have. (It's kind of like writing Redford as Red-Ford, except it's not in English.) My sister kept her maiden name as a middle name, and our maiden name looks 100% like a surname (although again, it's not in English). Despite this, people feel fully at liberty to butcher her name in various creative and inventive ways. Mrs. Red and Mr. Ford? Yup. Mrs. Ford and Mr. Red? Seen that too. Records filed under F instead of R? Ayup. Mr. and Mrs. Ford? All the time.

As bad as that is, the only way to make it worse would be a two-word surname. I work with student names, and if there are multiple name elements, I simply *have* to assume that the last word is the surname, the first word is the given name, and everything else is a middle name. There's no other way to deal with such questions in anything approaching an efficient manner. So if you take this post's advice and give your child a two-word surname, please don't be surprised and upset when the first word is routinely dropped.

October 30, 2014 10:45 PM

My husband and I picked a new surname for ourselves and our future kids. The families weren't ecstatic and people are confused when we explain it to them but for us it seemed like the right decision and we love our new name! Why should I take his name? Why should he take mine? Why complicate the kids lives with a hyphen or a name that only matches one parent? We chose a name for our family that means something to us and we couldnt be happier!

October 30, 2014 11:51 PM

Adding to my sister's list of reasons I refer to it as that d.....d hyphen:

Computer systems that tell you your name is invalid. Example: checking in for an international flight, where it warns you in big unfriendly red letters that your ticket and passport must match exactly -- but it won't effing accept it the way it is on your passport.

Credit reports that include "aliases" that are WRONG. (Ford M. Red, anyone? The kicker is that the "Ford" part is actually a feminine name, and this was on my husband's report.)

Trying to correct a credit report when the system doesn't accept punctuation in names, but the name you enter has to match the one they have on file -- with the hyphen.

I could go on, but it's mostly variations on the same theme: punctuation in names confuses people (and the computers they program).

By Cat4
October 31, 2014 12:01 AM

To HungarianNameGeek: You and your sister have mentioned all the problems with your husband's surname, but not why you took it. If it's so bad, why did you move your name to the middle and take his last name? Why didn't he move Red-Ford to the middle and take your name? If you have children, does it bother you to pass down to them a name that you and your husband have found to be unwieldy?

October 31, 2014 1:35 AM

I decided early in life that I would take on whichever last name was easiest to spell and pronounce. I hated having to spell my first and last names repeatedly and the blank stares it produced. One shop "assistant" even had the nerve to tell me I had spelled my name incorrectly, because she didn't think it looked like a name. 

But I'm lucky - the husband's last name is common and easy to spell and pronounce. I have a family middle name which offers a link to my family (specifically my mum) whatever last name I take on. Plus I have plenty of males in my family who will continue our crazy name. I appreciate it isn't that easy for everyone.

October 31, 2014 8:07 PM

Cat4, the other thing you have to factor in is that my maiden name is identical to my mother's. Completely identical -- no middle name, just given and surname. That had its own headaches, irrelevant to this discussion, and I welcomed the chance to get rid of the problems without actually losing any part of my name. When I made that decision, I didn't know about the hyphen headaches yet -- my husband takes them all in stride and is emotionally attached to that dratted bit of punctuation.

November 1, 2014 2:48 AM

This is precisely the solution we will be going with. Hubby's name wiill be the "last" name (it's earlier in the alphabet, which definitely has some advantages). My maiden name will be the "middle" name. However, we will teach our children to introduce themselves using their full name (e.g. Andrew Miller Carrillo). 

I personally didn't care about passing my name on to my children. However we decided to go this route because of our mixed ethnic backgrounds. We sadly live in a racist world where having the "right" last name can make a difference, so we wanted to give our children the ability to use their names as they see fit. They can play up which ever ethnicity would give them the most acceptance in whatever circumstances they are in.

By dane
November 11, 2014 11:16 AM

There are some problems with this solution, including (as mentioned before) that you have to pick an order to the names, that it's not easily extended to more names, and that names will be lost in the next generation unless the names stack and get enormous.

For these reasons and others, I prefer the union name solution described by Robby Bensinger: http://nothingismere.com/2013/11/12/solve-surnames-with-union-names/