about names

There are some issues to consider about naming yourself in print, and a lot of these are not obvious at first. I’ve been talking with some of my students about this, because several are thinking about changing their names for a variety of reasons, including marriage and language.

If you are thinking about changing your name, you may as well think about what’s at stake in the options. And even if your name is staying the same, you still have some choice in exactly how you write it for publication. What matters in a publication name? First, consistency. When people do literature searches for your work, they ought to be able to find all your work with the same search. If you have multiple names, you want it to be for a reason, such as fiction writers who write in different genres under different names. Second, distinctiveness. Having your professional identity mixed up with another’s is probably not as bad as having your Social Security records scrambled in with someone else’s, but it comes close. Folks with common names have a much harder time of this than others, and there are some unhappy cases of people with very similar names who happen to be working in very similar fields. If you have a common surname, include your full middle name in your publication name, not just your middle initial. It is also ideal if your surname and initials are unique in your field. I originally published without my middle initial because my name is not common, but I discovered there was another social scientist with the same surname and first initial doing related work; when I added the middle initial, I became unique in the citation index and reference formats that use initials only. Third, non-ambiguity. It is best if it is clear to all what is your surname and what is your first name and what is your middle name; if you have multiple-name names, it may be worthwhile to eliminate spaces or add hyphens to make the name clear to everyone. People with Spanish-system two-name surnames are probably best off hyphenating the surname so it gets treated properly.

A lot of people change names when they marry. This used to be mostly women, and I know many women whose professional writings are scattered across two or three (or more) surnames. This has generally hurt their careers, as they appear less productive than they actually have been. An exception is the scholar who got the first Golden Fleece award while bearing the name of a husband; when she divorced, she was able to dump the name and the infamy. Professional women have long struggled with what to do about names and have made many different choices: keep original name, take husband’s name, hyphenate, use the original name professionally and the married name socially, use birth surname as middle name. Lots of women are using a name that honors a spouse they no longer have, because they did not want to lose the public identity built around that name.

These days, men as well as women are deciding whether to change their names upon marriage. I don’t know of many who just take their wife’s name, but a fair number are hyphenating or creating new joint names; the student who is contemplating a marriage-related name change is a man. This is all very romantic and egalitarian, but it can be awkward if the marriage does not work out, when you have to decide whether to change your name again or go through life with a name that reminds you of some unhappy parts of your life. If you are going to change your professional name upon marriage, you need to marry before you first publish or live with the costs of the multiple-names problem. This is not always convenient, and it is not generally recommended to hold back on publication while you get your love life on track.

(Personal aside: I got married when I was still in college and was ambivalent about whether to change my name. The department secretaries, who were divorced, urged me not to get my name all tangled up with someone who might or might not be around all that long. I equivocated for a while, using various options but not making the commitment of changing my driver’s license, and ended up just sticking with my own name. As it turned out, I’ve been married 38 years, but I’ve still never regretted keeping my own name. We gave our kids both names and told them our family was named after them. People who knew us through the children referred to us by the double name and had trouble remembering which parent went with which name. This was fine with us. People who know only one of us tend to call the other by the wrong surname; we are not offended when this happens, and whether we bother to correct the error depends on context.)

Another big reason to change names is language. A prominent Dutch social psychologist decided to simplify his first name(s) from Pieter Gebertus to Bert when he first published in American journals. Similarly, Europeans and Americans who study and publish in China often adopt Chinese names for their Chinese publications. One of my Korean students is adopting an English first name because she is tired of people mispronouncing her name or – worse – avoiding talking to her because they don’t know how to say her name. Her first publication is coming up, and we were discussing fine-tuning exactly what name she will use. Her choice involves the form X.Y. Engname Name, where Name is her surname, Engname is her English first name, and X.Y. are the initials of her personal name. I worried that her citations would be all over the map, as some would be to Name, XY, some to Name, XE. I was suggesting X. Engname Name. In English, the equivalent issue is whether someone whose first name is Mary Ann and wants to go by the middle name Elizabeth should name herself M.A. Elizabeth or M. Elizabeth. Another possibility I thought of while writing this post might be X.-Y. Engname Name, although this may be too much. We did not reach resolution, but I raised issues she had not considered, especially as there is someone else in her subfield who is Name, XY.

Although it seems pretty rare in the academy, there may be something to be said for some intentionality in changing your name for publication purposes. If you have a very common surname, perhaps you could take the opportunity of marriage to make it more distinctive by hyphenation, whether or not the marriage lasts. This has been done. If marriage is inconvenient or illegal for you, perhaps you could hyphenate or modify your name anyway, choosing a name that works well. Another reason to alter your publication name is to make it fit the name everyone thinks you have. If you want everyone to call you Bill, perhaps that might be a reason to publish under the name Bill, even if your given names are Stephen Mark.

In case you are wondering, under U.S. common law people may use any names they wish so long as they are not doing it to defraud. Or, rather, any man may do so. The exception to the common law is that the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that states may compel a married woman to use her husband’s surname on official state documents such as drivers’ licenses, even if she is otherwise known by a different name such as the name on her birth certificate. As I now live in a state that does not have such a compulsion, perhaps I will not be doing great danger to myself in reporting that in the past I knowingly defied this ruling.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

32 thoughts on “about names”

  1. I had my name crisis when my first publication was forthcoming. I had kept my married name post-divorce because it was who I’d been for most of my adult life. If you googled it, you found me. Plus, I liked the name. It was common, unlike my maiden name, which meant that no one mispronounced it. Unfortunately, it was so common that another sociology graduate student, at Wisconsin, had it. I had a long talk with my advisor about what to choose for the publication (much like what’s OW has articulated here) and I ultimately went back to my maiden name. People still mispronounce it and it still doesn’t really feel like who I am, and most of my google-able adult life has been lost, but I’m happy that I made the choice and I’ll stick with it academically, even if choose something else in the future for my personal life.

  2. I got married before grad school, and eventually decided to make my maiden name into my middle name, for publication purposes. (My maiden name is fairly common.)

    As a side note, I was reading a feminist blog somewhere, and there was an interesting remark on it. The blogger was giving her friend grief for changing her last name when she got married, when the friend pointed out that her last name was just her father’s name anyway, so what did it matter?

  3. I married before publishing as well. But, I always knew I was going to be an academic, so I kept my maiden name in the middle of it all (so it’s X Y Z). Basically, because if I get a divorce ever (hoping not, it’s been 7 successful years so far) I would want to revert to my maiden name. I think I made a mistake by not hyphenating, because now everyone thinks that the Y is a middle name and not a last name, and it gets even more confusing when authorship is alphabetical.

    So, hyphenating is a great idea.

    Tamsynx, I think it mattered for me not because it was my father’s name, but because for over two decades it was MY name. The name I called myself when I messed up (Come on Y, what are you doing Y, etc.). In fact, I still do. I identified with that name much more than in 7 years I have come to identify with my husband’s last name. But, I think it’s a very personal choice, and wouldn’t question anyone’s decision.

  4. Alphabetical authorship? I have never heard of this tactic. Is it common? Hmm….my last name starts with an “A.” Perhaps I should start advocating this with my co-authors…

    I took my husband’s name when I got married because my maiden name was my father’s. I love my dad, but I have have never met his dad or anyone from his dad’s side of the family. Plus, we already had a child with his last name (to sever the link to my dad’s side of the family), and I wanted to have the same last name as my daughter. A bit old-fashioned, but it was enough for me that my husband would have supported me not doing so.

    Anyways, my old name was shared by a prominent internet porn star. The idea of googling my name and getting a combination of academic achievements and internet porn was just not all that appealing.

    Interesting post; I never realized names mattered so much in academia.

  5. Hahaha, “we already had a child with his last name (to sever the link to my dad’s side of the family)” oh, what a poorly constructed sentence.

    Better: we had already given our child her dad’s surname because we wanted to emphasize her inclusion in his family rather than my dad’s (my mom already has a different last name than me).

  6. thanks for the really interesting post – i also have one of those “spanish-style” Last Last names which i’m not particularly interested in hyphenating, but have found it difficult when interacting with any bureaucracy to get it recognized correctly. i remember a conversation with the IRS the year i changed it in which they told me that regardless of how my name appeared on court orders, my new soc sec card, my drivers’ license, i ought to hyphenate for them so they’d know both were last names. i had actually been thinking that academia was a place i could reclaim the non-hyphenated name, but now i’ll have to think again about OW’s citation/ambiguity points.

  7. Oh yeah, alphabetical authorship is common. I wonder if it is more pushed for by someone with an A last name!

    Every year both our regional sociological org and ASA always mess up my registration. Every year I have to email and make sure they have me registered. And then they take forever to find my tag, because they can’t figure out how they alphabetize it. Argh, all for the lack of a hyphen.

  8. FYI our children’s surname is a Spanish system two name name with a space not a hyphen; we are not Spanish but decided it made sense to adopt an existing system rather than invent one. Legally their names have no hyphens. However, they find they have to put hyphens in them to make their names come out right in a lot of bureaucratic systems. Regardless of what your legal name is, I guess I’m suggesting that a publication name use hyphens between the names so that it will get cited and alphabetized correctly. Or maybe we could adopt the programming convention and use an underscore to indicate a space?

    There’s a lot of interesting dialog to be had about the extent to which people ought to accommodate the dominant culture in names. Not only this specific two-name name issue, but whether to adopt an English name, and also whether to publish under a name you prefer if you don’t like your name.

    I think the sociology custom is to use order of authorship to indicate involvement on the paper, and I see no reason to change that custom.

  9. Hey, Jessica…if you were once the “Jessica Brown” at Arizona, then..uh…sorry about that. It is a pretty common name. I added my middle name for publication, but olderwoman seems to think it won’t actually help.

  10. @9 sure it will help! It just won’t make you unique when there are initials only. I was thinking to myself that the whole custom of using initials only is a big problem. Reference styles that routinely use whole names reduce the problem a lot.

  11. That was me, and I was going to go by Jessica Lyn Brown and my chair didn’t think that would matter. I miss being Jessica Brown. As common as it was, it was hard to leave it behind because I married so young and it was who I’d always been (plus I’d already kept it 3 years after my divorce).

  12. Well….I was born with it, but i can’t say I’ve ever been particularly enamored with it. I suppose we could arm wrestle for it.

  13. when the friend pointed out that her last name was just her father’s name anyway, so what did it matter

    I’ve heard this before, but don’t get it. At age 15-20-25-30 the person still thinks of it as her father’s name rather than her own name? Curious.

  14. Hey CD, are you just too young or do I misunderstand what confuses you? This feminist argument was the basis for giving up patriarchal surnames entirely and just picking a new one like Marysdottir or Courage or something. It’s the same point as why NOI members gave up their “slave names” in favor of X. In the dialog cited in @2, the point of the person quoted was that both father’s and husband’s name are patriarchal so there was no feminist reason not to take the husband’s name over the father’s name if she wanted to. She was defending herself against the charge of being insufficiently feminist in changing her name. She wasn’t saying she did not think her name was her name. Or are you saying that you think women are insufficiently feminist if they change their names upon marriage?

  15. Didn’t mean to start anything! But this can be a problem. One of my friends was very upset when I changed my name, and refuses to introduce me with my married name.

  16. OW, it’s certainly not up to me to decide whether someone else thinks herself or himself a feminist. For someone in her 20s or 30s to take on her husband’s name, that’s not my brand of feminism, but there are numerous other brands of feminism that have aspects I don’t much relate to either and I’m sure lots of people don’t care for my particular brand (like all of you here who disagree that names should matter).

    My point here was that I don’t buy this argument (I’ve heard it before, it’s not new to me). While originally her name may have come through her father, after 20-30 years, it has become HER own name, presumably. That’s very different from suddenly switching to another name and starting anew with another identity (well, not to suggest that all of one’s identity is out the window with a name change).

    I think it’s more complicated with women in their 50s and 60s who changed their names to their husbands’ when they were in their 20s. At that point it was so much taken-for-granted that it required much more to go against that norm than it does today (not to say that it’s trivial today).

    If the person was so concerned about the patriarchal lineage of her name in the first place then she could’ve just switched her name to her mother’s maiden name (by the way, likely also a father’s name at some point, how far do we go back?). I knew someone who’d done this. She’d had a bad relationship with her father and didn’t want to share the name.

    All that said, I would never do what is mentioned in #15. I do respect people’s decisions and will go along with what they choose for themselves. I just don’t like the particular reasoning mentioned in #2. (I also don’t like the following: “I wanted his family to know they meant a lot to me” suggesting that her family didn’t want to be meant a lot to the husband.)

    Personally, I think the trickiest part is how to name the children if the couple’s planning on having any. I appreciate that women want to have the same name as their kids (and often parents want their kids to have the same last name) and that’s not so obvious depending on the situation. (Yes, I also don’t think it should be default that kids get their father’s last name.)

  17. CD 16: I’m amused by the reference to “women in their 50s and 60s” as that is my age group and we were the in the heyday of second wave feminism in the 1970s, when everybody and her sister was in a conscious-raising group. We gripe about the lack of feminist consciousness in the younger generation (and have been doing so since the early 1980s). If you are 58 today you were 20 in 1970. I think you mean women in their 60s and 70s, who would have made their life decisions before the influence of second-wave feminism.

  18. No, I was referring to female friends of mine who strike me as very much feminists in important ways, but who are 55-60 years old today and who’d taken on their husbands’ names. (I wasn’t trying to do calculations, I was thinking of specific friends of mine and their exact ages today.) But perhaps this backs up the idea that name change is just a small part of one’s feminist identity.

  19. Note that @5 it is her MOTHER who has a different name from her father. (I guess the post does not say whether they are married.) Post-1970, I don’t think this is generational. I’ve watched this for a long time, and I think the name-changing vs not has less to do with feminist consciousness or generation and more to do with how old you are when you marry, your class background, your thoughts about “what will we name the children,” and your feelings about the aesthetic and other qualities of the various names under consideration. And lots of women are using a different name professionally than socially/legally.

  20. This discussion is now making me understand something…

    My partner and I both changed our names when we married to his middle name (his middle name was a last name that had been dead in his family for 100 years). We liked it because it solved the ‘what will the kid’s name be’ problem as well as that it felt like an equitable solution for both of us — it also helped that his original last name was really unfortunate. The name switch was also his idea — though his father’s side of the family remains unconvinced of this and we still get mail to Mr. and Mrs. His Old Last Name (I don’t expect the Dr. title to show up in there anytime soon either).

    Because his middle name was a last name, you’d never know we did anything ‘unconventional.’ This isn’t something I tell people very often (who cares, right?), but I notice that I do tend to tell it to female colleagues at some point — I must be doing this to enhance my feminist street cred?

    Sidenote: My name was easy to change in conjunction with the wedding ceremony. My husband, however, in order to invert his middle and last names had to do so in court (and with two witnesses and a relatively long hearing with all sorts of questions about WHY he was doing this). The wedding ceremony form in our state didn’t have a space for a groom name change.

  21. I think age is definitely part of it. The friend I mentioned is older and never married. To me, my last name doesn’t define who I am. My first name and my nickname define me.

  22. this conversation is really interesting…

    my partner and i both changed our names to his middle name when we married (a last name that had been dead in his family for 100 years). it solved the kid naming problem and felt equitable to both of us — it also helped that his original last name was really unfortunate. it was actually his idea but his family remains unconvinced of this and we often get mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. His Old Last Name (I don’t expect Dr. to show up in there anytime soon).

    Because his middle name was a last name, you wouldn’t notice we did anything unconventional if i didn’t tell you. i don’t tell many people (who cares?) but i find that i tend to share it with female colleagues — perhaps I am trying to shore up my feminist street cred? Don’t know what I would do in the event of divorce, but i suspect i would keep it since it feels as much mine as his (and the publication problem is a big deal).

    sidepoint: my name change was easy in the context of the wedding ceremony but my partner had to do it legally prior to the wedding with a hearing, judge, two witnesses, and MANY questions about why he was doing it.

  23. @20 I think you are saying that older women (my generation) equate keeping birth name with feminism more than younger women do. Right? That is my impression, as well. Keeping your name seemed more of a symbol in the 1970s, and that was part of why I did it. Now that nobody is trying to stop you from doing it, its meaning shifts, especially if the man changing his name too is on the table. (Of course, your “older” friend could be a lot younger than I!)

  24. Now that nobody is trying to stop you from doing it

    Do you really feel that’s how it is? I think there remains tons of pressure on women to change their names. I also don’t think it’s become trivial for men to change their names, but I don’t know of specific recent stories (because I don’t know of any men who’ve tried to change their names).

    I find the comment in #20 fascinating from an academic. I figure last name is huge given all of the issues mentioned by OW in the original post. Plus the focus on first names reminds me of some lines in You’ve Got Mail, which I hope won’t come across as offensive, but this was really the first thing to come to mind as I read #20 above:

    Kathleen Kelly to Joe Fox: “‘Joe. Just call me Joe.’ As if you were one of those stupid 22-year-old girls with no last name. ‘Hi, I’m Kimberley.’ ‘Hi, I’m Janice.’ What’s wrong with them? Don’t they know you’re supposed to have a last name? It’s like they’re a whole generation of cocktail waitresses.”

    Apologies if I’m misunderstanding focus on the first name.

  25. This article on Feministing indicates that name changes are still assumed to be the domain of women.

    “California and some 40 other US states provided no place on the marriage licence application, and driving licence, for the groom to choose the bride’s surname.”

    They also note a couple who was denied a birth certificate for their child b/c they wanted to give it the mother’s last name, and a 2004 Pennsylvania decision to not allow a child to have a hyphenated last name: apparently, having just your dad’s name is in your best interest.

  26. My husband really wanted us to have one name for our family, but I refused to just take his last name, because it is boring and common. He agreed that it was only fair for him to change his name, too, and so he had his name officially changed. We experimented with combining the names, but couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound silly, so we hyphenated. Our last name is now cumbersome and awkward, but we couldn’t come up with another solution for us all to have the same last name. We both use it professionally and socially. We will leave it up to our children to decide what to do when they marry.

    We are about to move to Germany, where it is illegal for men to hyphenate their last names.

  27. Anomie, thanks for that link. (I’m reposting as it didn’t seem to work in your post and I ended up searching for the piece.) I’ve seen articles like this over the years, sad to see little has changed. (I first read about the hurdles men face in such situations in my college Sex and Gender class. There was a piece on this in the edited volume Feminist Frontiers. I wanted to look up author & title info, but I can’t find my copy and it may not have made the cut into the most recent versions of the volume.)

    Personally, I’m for people keeping their names, although I do think that if the couple has children figuring out how to name them poses a challenge.

  28. where it is illegal for men to hyphenate their last names

    Who comes up with this crap? I could see some reasoning if it was illegal for all, but to differentiate based on gender? Ugh.

  29. “We are about to move to Germany, where it is illegal for men to hyphenate their last names.”

    I just heard last night that in Germany, once you’ve chosen a baby’s name, you have to register it with – the office of records? – and wait to see if it gets rejected. All sorts of interesting politics going on there, eh?

  30. @23 CD – Maybe it’s just me then (and I’m not 22, I’m in my late 30’s 😉 When I introduce myself (on a person to person basis, not in class) I have to remember to add a last name, usually I just use my first name. In Indonesia they have one name. When my friend registered at school, he had to use his one name as his first name and last name.

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