A few columns ago, a reader emailed me to point out that I’d made a mistake in referring to “Benincasa” as St. Catherine of Siena’s surname. He happened to be a biographer of Catherine’s and reminded me that, in 14th century Italy, surnames as we know them today were not the norm. Benincasa was her grandfather’s name, it turns out. But to history, the great saint is most commonly known by her given name and the town where she was born.
Jesus himself was merely “the Nazarene” to those who wanted to denigrate him and “Christ” to those who believed—no surname. Same with most of our favorite saints. In many cases, as with Catherine, surnames didn’t exist yet. But even Thérèse of Lisieux, who lived well after the advent of surnames, is known according to the place where she took her vows as a nun. Perhaps, in this as in other ways, more of us should be like the saints.
As my wife and I were preparing to get married about a year ago now, like many couples, we talked a lot about names. Would she take my last name? Would I take hers? Would we make up our own? I like hers, but I also feel a certain loyalty to mine, in part because I’m the only grandson on my father’s side. (I’m the only grandson on my mother’s side, too, but no dice.) We’ve kept our surnames, but now that we’re expecting our first child, the problem is coming up all over again.
For those of us who don’t view a man in a married couple as holding a higher social or spiritual status than a woman, there is no easy solution that I know of. Hyphenating names is one approach, but a generation or two later, it will get quite unwieldy. The Spanish system of compound names only forestalls the dominance of the male side for a generation. Making up a new name upon marriage seems to cut the new family off from their elder relatives, reinforcing our culture’s lamentable overemphasis on the nuclear unit alone. Maybe it’s time to do away with surnames altogether, finally. Maybe it isn’t so hard.
Surnames came to be in Europe during the late Middle Ages, when cities grew big enough that there would be too many people called “John of York” to keep them straight. Ever more sophisticated political systems needed to distinguish particular individuals for purposes like taxation and military service. In a patriarchal culture, passing a surname down the line of males seemed like a sensible solution. But patriarchy is less obvious now, and any city’s white pages are still full of indistinguishable names.
Today, we have other ways of identifying people. Most of us have social security numbers or ID card numbers; more and more people have Facebook accounts. As online “reputation” becomes increasingly important for businesses, new tools are being developed to track and identify individuals, to keep straight who is who. There’s no reason why we can’t come up with a sensible system that would be more effective than surnames for distinguishing us. Some of us might prefer not be identifiable to the state or the Internet at all, and maybe that’s okay, too.
So what if we were to do away with surnames altogether? Maybe we could change parts of our names as we go through life, as we change our affiliations and locations. We could earn names with our deeds, like Muslims who go on pilgrimage to Mecca earn the title “Hajji,” like monks and nuns who take new names for their vowed lives. We could use one name from birth to death, or several at once. And if there’s any confusion, we could refer back to that sensible ID system and be sure who is who.
For now, convenience compels people to maintain a practice that is sexist and antithetical to values many espouse. We cling to a human tradition that doesn’t do justice to the equal dignity that women and men hold in the eyes of God. In the absence of something better, however, my wife and I will probably end up clinging to tradition, too.