When Sharon Goldberg and Yonathan Cwik got engaged, they spent a lot of time discussing what to do about their last name.
Two different names wouldn’t work; they wanted a single name for their family. They weren’t willing to choose one name over the other; that didn’t seem very equal. Hyphenation didn’t feel right, either: For their kids, and their kids’ kids, that would get long and complicated, fast. So they decided to put “Goldberg" and “Cwik” together, legally changing their last names to “Goldtzvik.”
“When you get married, you’re creating something new. You’re creating a new family,” says Sharon, 32, chief executive at a communications consulting company based in Washington, D.C. “So to have one new name for that family just felt right.”
Married Americans have been getting creative with surnames for decades. Particularly in coastal cities and other liberal enclaves, it’s no longer assumed that a woman will adopt her husband’s last name when they get married: She might keep her name, he might change his, or the two might hyphenate. But some couples are now doing something different: fashioning a new name — often out of pieces of their old ones — that is entirely original.
“Within the U.S., there have been all these shifts in naming over the years,” says Brian Powell, a professor of family and gender at Indiana University-Bloomington who has studied attitudes toward marital name changes. Still, he says, most existing options demand some kind of “gendered power shift” that suggests the two partners aren’t entirely equal: Either one name is placed before the other in a hyphenation or one is cast aside altogether. The creation of a completely new name, Powell says, “could be the next logical step.”
When Rachel Ackoff married Lee Leviter, the couple decided that they would keep their own names but create a new one for their children: Levikoff. The decision, they say, stemmed from a strong distaste for patriarchy.
“Taking the husband’s name is a patriarchal institution. It comes from the idea that the wife and children are the husband’s property,” Leviter says. As a couple, he says, “we’re just not down with that.”
Ackoff and Leviter are right, says Richard Coates, a professor of linguistics at the University of the West of England, Bristol, who specializes in the history of names: The predominant naming tradition in the western world — whereby names are passed down from father to son, and women give up their names at marriage — is unquestionably sexist.
In England, the tradition of inherited surnames dates back to the 12th century, Coates says, when everyone in a given town had one of maybe a dozen first names, complicating the process of orchestrating an inheritance: “If you were called Robert, chances are there were several other Roberts within striking distance. So you needed to make sure the right Robert got the land and the property.” Meanwhile, Coates says, women would be considered part of that property: When a married woman took Robert’s newly fashioned last name, the subtext was that she now belonged to him.
A brand-new last name can simultaneously signal a couple’s feminist values and their commitment to the cohesion of the family unit, says Powell. “The idea that one person with one name, and another person with another name, come together to jointly create a new one ... symbolically, it can be very powerful,” he says.
This might be especially true for LGBT couples, says Michele Zavos, a family law attorney based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in helping LGBT families. Particularly since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, she says, she’s noticed an uptick in same-sex families eager to adopt the same name — still probably the clearest way to publicly signal a legal marital relationship. While most will either settle on one partner’s name or that of the other, passing that name onto their children, she has worked with some who have chosen to create their own.
For some, Powell says, the create-your-own-name trend will be a hard sell. That’s because many humans — particularly men — feel a responsibility to the name they were born with: bound to disseminate it as widely as possible, like pollen or sperm.
“People are very wedded to last names,” says Coates. If their name is spelled in a nontraditional way — “Browne,” for example — family members will generally insist on maintaining that particular spelling, he says. Wealthy families, especially, have long tried to piece together their family history, hoping to prove that they come from a lengthy, important line. In the United States, there is a certain fascination with families that “came over on the Mayflower.” Without an inherited last name, Coates says, that gets very hard to prove.
The Goldtzviks were surprised when Sharon’s father-in-law — whom Sharon calls a “proper hippie” — took issue with their decision to create a new name. Living through Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, he explained that he’d watched the government “disappear” entire families by kidnapping their children, giving them to other families and changing their names. “The idea was to erase the family lines by blotting out those names,” Sharon says. Her father-in-law struggled to understand why they would freely choose to do the same thing.
Many of the couples I interviewed did not feel particularly attached to their original last names. Both Ackoff and Leviter, for example, come from Jewish families that had immigrated from Eastern Europe, where Jews generally did not adopt surnames until they were forced to do so by the government in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Those surnames were then changed again — Anglicized “for easier use” — when their families came to the United States.
When Ackoff realized that she was the last Ackoff who could potentially pass on the name to the next generation, she was initially worried about the name “dying out,” she said. “But then I was like, ‘Wait … that really isn’t that old of a name.’” Leviter, the only son of an only son, felt the same way.
The biggest hurdle to creating a new name, most couples agreed, was the logistical legwork. Lauren Goodlev — formerly Lauren Levy, a cantor based in Philadelphia who combined names with her husband, originally Eric Goodman — spent about $1,000 on the process. The hardest part, she says, was proving that they were not any of the Lauren Levys or Eric Goodmans who had committed various crimes and happened to live nearby.
Once the name change became official, Goodlev says, the rest was easy. Friends and family generally supported the decision; whenever new people find out about her name, they usually think it’s “really cool.” After Sharon and her husband created “Goldtzvik,” multiple friends asked for help creating their own new, combined names.
The inherited last name probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, according to Coates. But with time, he says, he believes the tradition could change.