Saturday, February 03, 2007

What’s in a name?

Our surname – family name, is the first name we get. Before we are born, our parents choose a name for a boy or a girl, but the babe in its mother’s womb is called first by the family name until that first name is chosen.

Our surname is the name that comes first in school registers, telephone directories and other lists of people. It is the name that most identifies us with the world at large, after which comes our chosen name, Christian name, which differentiates us from others with the same surname – mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, the rest of our extended family and other people that share the same surname.

Our first name gives us our very own personal identity, but our surname locates us in the world. You can tell from a surname where a person comes from. A Macpherson will have some Scottish connections, a Curry, Irish ones. Someone called Anderson or Christianson will originally hail from the north- Scandinavia, a Patel or a Mistry will come from the sub-continent, a Wong from China.

So if you were to think of changing your surname by deed poll – legally and formally, so that from this day on you will be known as another name, what are the considerations you would take into account before you chose that new name – that new you?

Let us assume that you don’t want to change too much else – you want to remain a Chinaman, and Englishwoman or a Turk, an Aussie or a Kiwi. And you don’t want to endanger your professional reputation – if you are a professor of theology, you don’t want to sound like a pop star. If you are an English Language Teacher you want to sound like a native speaker of English rather than a speaker of Thai or French.

Once your name is changed, you want to remain the same person, respected by your peers, still befriended by those you think of as your friends. You want to be addressed as Mr. Mrs. if you are married, Ms. if you prefer not to say. You may be a doctor of philosophy or medicine, so your surname should sound suitable – after all, you have the opportunity to choose it, sending you back to a pre-foetal time when you had no surname name.

This sounds like some kind of joke – like the adage that says that if your parents didn’t have any children, the chances are that you won’t have any! Choosing a surname is something that is not given to us – we are born into a family and that is that. In taking the momentous decision to be known and called by a different surname – a different family name, one is surmounting one’s birth day, or going back to a dawn when you did not exist and consequently had no family.

Is there a land of unborn spirits, those yet to be born, where ephemeral children sit and wait for procreation and their own creation to begin? If there is, how does selection take place – how does the spirit of this child go to that family, to that foetal embryo?

Changing your surname is the earthly equivalent of going back to that dawn and choosing; changing your surname in mid-life is momentous, and the gravity of making such a choice – of picking a new, different, appropriate, suitable surname should be born in mind when the choice is in the process of being made.

Once the new appellation is formed, a new word to follow Mr, Mrs. Ms Dr or just your first name, the world will start to call you by that name. If you write a book, that name will appear on the cover, if you travel, that name will be printed in your passport, if you achieve distinction in any field, become PhD, win a Nobel Prize, that new name will go with that accolade.

And unto this last, your name, the name you chose to tell the world who you are, this name will appear above you in stone for all time to come. When another 40 centuries look down, your name will remain like so many others that have survived to say to future generations, “This is me. This is who I was.”
Robert L. Fielding


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