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Our names are important. 

They signal our age, race, ethnicity, nationality and other subtle messages in the picture each of us presents to the larger world. For example, my maternal grandmother was Margaret Regina — her father was Austrian, and I was named in her honor. Margaret was also the 23rd most popular name for girls born in the 1950s, according to the Social Security Administration, which has tracked the rise and fall of baby names since the late 1800s. By the 2000s, Margaret had fallen to the 137th slot, which should give you some info about me. So should the fact that Margaret has been a common first name for baby girls in England since the 11th century.

My childhood was populated with children with names not unlike Margaret, solid and traditional. I do not remember anyone with what I thought of as a creative name, except for one Haymount Elementary classmate named Durema and a woman my age whom I have recently met named Dreama. Would love to know the stories behind those names! 

Today’s parents are much more creative than my parents’ generation apparently was.  A quick read of birth announcements in local hospitals has turned up such gems as “Tamale” and “Chandelier” and one name which had the numeral “8” in it. This is America, of course, and we are blessed to be able to name our children whatever we choose, including whatever we make up to assure that our special little one really is unique. Yes, I have seen “Unique” as a name as well.

I cannot help but think that we do our children no good turn by being too creative. Teachers cannot always spell what we create, other children cannot always remember it, and the workplace — when our Precious Jewels get to that point, is not always kind to or tolerant of creative names. Research indicates that given the same skill set, Jane’s career will advance more readily than Jan8te’s. In the interest of full disclosure, two of the Dicksons’ Precious Jewels have unusual first names —albeit family ones, and I know those names have required explanations from them since their earliest school years. Would I use those names again? Yes, but I doubt I would push the naming envelope any further.

Historically, our last names have been less creative, because they are generally passed down from one generation to the next. In Western cultures, women have also generally adopted their husbands’ family name, though that is not the case in all cultures. Today, we are getting creative on last names as well.

Upshot, a data-driven analysis venture of The New York Times, tells us that more women are keeping their “maiden,” or birth surnames, when they marry than at any time in American history. Early equal rights activist Lucy Stone created a sensation and became famous by declining to take her husband’s name in 1855, and it has been an issue for women ever since. In the turbulent 1970s, an era some call the “Ms. Decade,” about 17 percent of American women decided to hold on to what they had instead of taking hubby’s name, a decision that was political to many. That number fell during the more conservative 1980s and ‘90s. Upshot reports that fully 20 percent of today’s brides keep their names, though for less political reasons. Today’s brides marry later, and many have a professional identity they do not want to change. 

Whatever the reason, keeping one’s name also reveals something about that woman. More affluent women living in urban areas are more likely to do so than women living in other areas. Ditto for women with advanced degrees and for Asian and Hispanic women. Jewish women are more likely to keep their names than are Catholic women. Even so, most American women do adopt their husbands’ last name. Says Penn State sociologist Laurie Scheuble, “The pressure is huge. This is the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect.”

Then there are those of us who simply do our own thing. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who adopted the Clinton full time only when her husband ran for President, uses all three names, and I sign my checks with all of mine. Other women hyphenate their own name with their husbands’ names, so that when Jane Jones marries Steve Smith, Jane becomes Jane Jones-Smith. Rarely does Steve do anything other than remain Steve Smith.  Occasionally, both people in a couple decide to abandon both their names in favor of a new one altogether or come up with some merged version of both their names which they both then adopt. Few couples seem to have the nerve to do what Marco Perego did when he married actress Zoe Saldana. He became Marco Saldana!

My thought is that most of us are better off with names that fit us like comfy shoes, not like 6-inch stilettos. In all likelihood and however we acquired them, they will be with us for the long haul. Better that we wear them and not they us.


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