On Names, from someone who doesn’t have one. Guest post by Stephen Brown
It is a common name in Britain, a very common name. Both parts. At my school I was not the only Brown, or the only Stephen. At work right now I am not even the only Stephen Brown. What this generally means is that my name gets changed, or people do not use my name. At school I was “Brownie” even to many of the teachers. When I was undertaking my exams at a previous employer 10 years ago there were two Stephens in the class. This was apparently an impossible situation for any of the grown adults in the group to deal with, so to the rest of the class and the tutor we became “big Steve” and “little Steve” (I was “big Steve”).
I have also found that my name is the perfect mixture of common sounding, whilst at the same time also necessitating me to spell it out nearly every time someone needs to write it down or having them inevitably spell it incorrectly (Stephen/Steve and Brown/Browne).
At my current job I cannot use my first name and surname as my email address like everyone else. I have to use my middle initial too. That would be fine, but because people use Outlook for names when they put documents together I am often named Stephen J. Brown. I would never use my name like this. I am not able to pull it off with the same style and confidence as Michael J. Fox. Even with the “J” solution, I often get my namesake’s email and he gets mine (sometimes I even get calls to come and collect parcels for him, which would be fine, but we work in offices hundreds of miles apart). Once when a senior partner at the firm used the wrong email address he asked me, in all seriousness, whether I had considered changing my name so that he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
There is a certain level of google-nymity that having a name like this brings though. For instance, Denitza was unable to successfully Facebook stalk me when I first got together with Vera! However, you don’t disappear as much as you might think. When I last changed jobs I read somewhere that you should google yourself to see if there was anything untoward for any future employers to find. I dutifully googled “Stephen Brown HMRC” (who were my then employers). The first entry was for a Facebook group entitled “HMRC is shite and everyone should leave except Stephen Brown who never will”. Excellent I thought. And yes, the Stephen Brown in question who would never leave was me. An ex-colleague of mine had set the page up as a joke when she was leaving several years previously.
My Mum did take my Dad’s name. Not as an 18 year old straight out of school, but as grown woman in her late twenties who had travelled the world. In fact, she took his name before they even married! When they met, my Dad was separated and waiting for a divorce. They had both worked abroad at various times and he was about to go away again. The only way that she could go with him, in the eyes of his company, was if they were married (or had the same last name). I don’t know whether she woke up feeling like a different person because she changed her name. I know that I woke up feeling like a different person after meeting Vera and it didn’t require me to change my name.
I feel like an outsider to the debate on name changing. It’s just not the social norm for men to change their names after marriage, maybe it should be, but it means that it never comes up. From the outside though it seems to me that there is no room for discussion about it or any of the issues around it. People seem to have very definite ideas about it, whichever camp they are in. The only argument that I can possibly see for a woman changing her name is because it is still generally a socially accepted norm, and in certain situations it could make life easier, or at least require them to make fewer explanations.
I should say at this point that Vera is keeping Blagev, and I am very happy for her to do so – she feels very strongly that it is a big part of her identity. There are consequences to a woman keeping her name though. There is a TV show we watch all the time called “How I Met Your Mother”, and often when difficult decisions need to be made they agree to disagree and leave it up to the future versions of themselves to sort it out – “This is a job for future Marshall and Lilly!”. As we will have different surnames, “future Vera and Stephen” will have a decision to make on the surname of our kids, much as Denitza and Amnon did when they plumped for Blagev Schlegel (which I do think has a nice ring to it for the record). In our case, were we to go down the joint surname route, there wouldn’t even be a discussion over the order – Brown Blagev just sounds horribly wrong. But I can’t help but feel that this route is unsustainable in the long term. When our future kids fall in love and want to get married and have kids, if their other halves also have a joint surname – what then for their kids? And the generation after that? How many names is it practical to include? Do you start losing names, and if so how do you make that decision?
Vera and I had to go and register our intent to marry earlier in the year with our local Council in London. Each of us was interviewed separately by the Registrar, first to see that we weren’t being coerced into anything that we didn’t want, and second to ask for information about our families – more specifically information just about our fathers. When I saw Vera afterwards she was up in arms about the fact that they had not asked for any information about her mother and aghast at the sexism of it all. I was just upset because when they asked my Dad’s current occupation I had to answer that he was dead. Vera was mortified when she realised, but my point isn’t that she was wrong to be upset, I agree that it is sexist. When you get into issues about family names, and whom they have belonged to, emotions can run high for everyone. As a man, it is almost impossible to hold an open discussion about these type of issues because to want to talk about it means to many people that you must therefore be sexist.
Blagev is obviously a much more unique identifier than Brown, and I can understand, if that is your name, why you would want to continue it down to future generations. Where does that leave me with Brown then? This is not a name that will die out anytime soon, but all the other Browns are not my Browns. My Dad’s parents died when I was a baby, and I didn’t really know many of his family, although he had a number of brothers and sisters. When he died last year none of his family attended the funeral. None of them will be there when Vera and I get married this year. I don’t have any brothers or sisters – to me, this Brown is the last one in the line.
Names do reflect our heritage and tie us to our ancestors, but the name you have probably only reflects one, or at most two, lines of a much richer background. I am able to trace relatives back to some of the big, famous sailing boats of the 18th century because the Isle of Wight was rich with sailors at the time – none of them are Browns though.