Jetsons vs. Cartwrights: Our Fossilized Surnames

Mar 28th 2013

 

The 1960s animated sitcom The Jetsons was set in a space-age future, complete with domestic computers and rocket cars. George Jetson jetted off to work each morning for his tyrannical boss Mr. Spacely, who was attended by a secretary named Miss Galaxy. Space-age surnames for a space-age lifestyle.

Now, I don't drive a rocket car. But I do happen to have in my pocket a smooth little rectangle that lets me video-call anywhere in the world; tap into a near-infinite web of knowledge; read any book I want or listen to any song I want within seconds of wanting it; get a live map of my surroundings with me moving through them; and so much more. From the perspective of George Jetson's creators, I am definitely living in the future.

So where are the information-age surnames? Forget The Jetsons -- our names still live in the world of the Cartwright family of Bonanza.

Surnames don't ebb and flow with fashion the way first names do. That makes sense, since they're fundamentally about heritage, connections and continuity. Yet as generations pass, the names themselves can come to seem arbitrary. We routinely identify ourselves based on the lifestyle of a single ancestor, 15 generations back, who happened to be around when his community started using surnames. Our surnames are fossilized.

Perhaps your name is frozen at the time that one of your hundreds of forebears lived by a broad river crossing (Bradford) or a castle (Castro). Perhaps you take your identity from the fact that he was a shoemaker (Schuster) or cowherd (Vaccaro). Or maybe his dad's name was David (Davidovic, Davison), or he was a short fellow (Little, Klein), or had red hair (Rubio, Russell). Why him and not you?

What surname would your descendants bear if you took a lifestyle snapshot right now? What byname identifies you to those around you? Would you choose a location-based name, like Michelle Chicago or Kevin D'Onramp? An occupation, like Chris Estateplanner or Melanie Broadband? Are those names really any more outrageous than Cartwright, a builder of carts?

Realistically, I know that few of us will make that surname leap. Our fossilized surnames are here to stay. That means that in the comically absurd space-age future of The Jetsons, the most unrealistic element may not be the robot maid or the individual spaceships, but the name Jetson itself.

Comments

1
March 29, 2013 10:47 AM

Great post! My (married) surname means "swineherd," so I'm not too fond of that system :) Luckily it's not an obvious meaning from the name. 

2
March 29, 2013 12:40 PM

Married last name means "Shepherd"--switched to that from "son of Jack". 

Would love for my son to switch to "son of James" since I love that name and it would actually work! 

3
March 30, 2013 8:50 AM

This is an interesting topic given that many parents today (as Laura has commented on) are giving their children first names that are occupational surnames. That is, they're chosing names that indicate occupations often without thinking about the occupation implied.  Cooper, Chandler, Carter, Tyler, etc. are so fossilized that they don't tend to connote the (not particularly glamorous) labor involving barrels, candles, carts, or tiles. 

4
March 30, 2013 10:07 AM

I know a some couples who've collectively changed their last names.

*One couple who picked a new last name for both spouses, using one of his extensive list of middle names.

*One couple who changed their last name from a slang word for penis to another last name from his extended family

*One couple who brought together many different backgrounds (Asian, caucasian...etc) change to a last name meaning "chimera"

5
March 30, 2013 6:52 PM

My maiden name meant "Some immigration official couldn't spell" derived from a farm name in Norway.  At least that farm is owned by a distant cousin and I feel attached to the place.   My married name means "Swiss" which I'm not and neither is anyone in my husband's family for 300+ years. 

It doesn't describe our lives, but it's better than Jiminy Salesadministator or Jiminy Tanhousesouthofhighway136.

6
March 31, 2013 9:07 PM

Surnames do fossilze to an extent, but they're not immutable.  I went to university with someone whose surname was invented by his parents, and two of my friends changed their surname to a joint, new surname when they married.  

As for me...well, other people with my surname are always trying to find out if we are related.  Spoiler alert: we aren't.  If I was related to you, you would recognize my first-last combo and ask if I was Cousin L's oldest daughter; last generation, there were only about 30 people with my surname who were related to each other in the entire United States.  Everyone else with that surname got it elsewhere. Our family had two surname changes in the recent past: one ancestor swapped his middle and last names at the request of his employer because of the number of identical names on the payroll, and in a later generation, one of that man's descendants altered the spelling of the new name.  I am more likely to be related to someone with the surname "Swensen" than I am to be related to anyone with my own surname.  

(And let us not get into the fossilzation of surname-alikes like patronymics, hah!)

7
April 2, 2013 5:21 PM

Actually, some people do have modern profession surnames -- in India, at least. Though there are traditional surnames (eg, Patel, Rao) in some places, the national government requirement of a surname is pretty recent there, so there are people with last names like Engineer or Mechanic, for the same reason we have trade names as surnames.

The other recent options are similar to the ones our ancestors started using decades or centuries earlier, as well -- usually the father's name or ancestral village. I know people with first- or second-generation surnames from each of these categories: eg, Tailor (profession), Shivagangappa (father's name), and Chandur (place name).

8
April 3, 2013 5:39 PM

My maiden name is Irish and, like all Irish surnames, means "son of" Millen which is a clan name.  Now there are lots of different spellings of Millen mostly because through the years folks either didn't know how to spell or when they came over to the US thru Ellis Island the Immigration officials didn't know how to spell it either.  When I married, my husband has a very traditional Spanish surname that goes all the way back to the 13th century when 2 brothers had a falling out and parted ways.  One decided to change his last name slightly so as not to be associated with his brother.  We have the changed last name.  However, here in the US our last name is better known (at least to Yankee baseball fans) because of a certain pitcher some years ago.  Plus there is a small town in Louisiana with the same name.

9
April 5, 2013 3:57 AM

Yeah, last names don't last for long, I am a girl and that stands true for me. But also some last name turns out be true in near future. Have many friends like that, I mean what were the grand old ones thinking when the nomenclature took place.

10
April 4, 2013 8:05 AM

Well sometimes last names create embarrasment due to their weird meanings. But as for girls, they have the option to change it.

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April 13, 2013 11:10 PM

My last name means "man who is not a slave."  Thrilling, eh.  I'd like my descendents to have the last name PoodleOwner.  Okay, then.

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That is, they're chosing names that indicate occupations often without thinking about the occupation implied.  Cooper, Chandler, Carter, Tyler, etc. are so fossilized that they don't tend to connote the (not particularly glamorous) labor involving barrels, candles, carts, or tiles

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