Surnames in the UK and much of the rest of the world are generally patrilineal. To take a recent example, the Prime Minister’s new son, Wilfred Johnson, has taken his father’s surname, while his mother’s surname (Symonds) has not been passed on. (Carrie Symonds might also take the Johnson surname when they marry, but let’s not get into that too much.)
To give another example (bear with me a minute), world-famous sports star Serena Williams also had a child fairly recently and that child’s name is… Alexis Ohanian (Jr.). In the UK, US and many other countries, fathers tend to pass on their surname while mothers do not, as the diagram below depicts (complete with a fictional next generation).
This is a fairly sexist system, even if it is now a traditional norm.
But are there any good alternatives? We could do away with the concept of surnames entirely, and/or use unique identifiers (‘X Æ A-Xii‘?), but I assume that’s too radical. Each family could come up with an entirely new surname, but that seems to defeat the purpose. There is the possibility of creating blended surnames – Johnson and Symonds might give their child the surname Symson, for example – but that seems particularly messy.
Of course, we can double-barrel: e.g. Johnson-Symonds or Symonds-Johnson (with or without the hyphens). Great! That does raise the question of which name should come first. But the bigger problem is what to do after one generation? What do you do when two double-barrelled surnames collide? It’s not feasible to have a quadruple surname, and then an octuple surname – and so on – as the generations progress.
So is a simple but non-sexist naming convention possible? Yes! We can take the current patrilineal system and couple it with a matrilineal one. So, everyone would have their father’s father’s father’s (…) surname, but they would also have their mother’s mother’s mother’s (…) surname. (There is a strong argument that matrilineal names are more sensible, incidentally, as there is greater certainty over the identity of people’s mothers!)
What would that mean in practice? The diagram below gives an example, assuming that this system had been in place for a couple of generations already. With this system, the PM’s son might be called Wilfred Johnson Lawrence: taking a patrilineal name from his father and a matrilineal name from his mother.
Another way of putting this is that it is a system of double-barrelled surnames in which women only pass on the part of their double-barrel that they got from their mother, while men only pass on the part of their double-barrel that they got from their father. The two elements can be referred to as matrinames and patrinames.
A particularly neat thing about this proposed system is that it has a strong biological parallel. Mitochondria are inherited from one’s mother, while Y-chromosomes are passed on from father to son to son. This system would essentially be naming ‘haplotypes’ of Y-chromosomes and mitochondria (albeit with women having their fathers’ Y-chromosome names without having Y-chromosomes). (I believe this point may also be made in ‘The Seven Daughters of Eve’ by Prof. Bryan Sykes.)
In the diagram above, I’ve put the patrilineal name first. But, equally, the matrilineal name could go first. Or, the name that someone could pass on would go first: so it would be Johnson Symonds for a boy, but Symonds Johnson for a girl (though it might seem strange to give siblings different orderings). Perhaps a convention might emerge, or maybe this is something best left to each family and what sounds best in each case. As for the question of hyphenating, I (like Rebecca Long-Bailey) don’t have a strong view.
Despite being gender-balanced overall, this system places a lot of weight on gender: patrinames are passed down through your male children and matrinames through female children. (Indeed, a simpler variant of this system would be single-barrel names where sons take the father’s surname and girls take their mother’s). And, as such, there’s (still) a strong element of chance. In the example above, there are eight people in the first generation but only Stanley Johnson and Oracene Price pass their surnames on to their hypothetical great grandchild. What’s more, no system is going to work neatly in all circumstances: people’s lives are complicated, and so is gender.
That said, a matriname-patriname system would be a great improvement on the predominant patrilineal single-name system, and seems like the best approach. And, in the short-term, for most parents the choice I’d recommend is fairly simple: opt for a double-barrel rather than single surname. It will be for those with double-barreled surnames to decide where to go from there, but I hope they – including my very-soon-to-be daughter – will opt for the gender-balanced approach of patrilineal and matrilineal names.
PS: While having two surnames can be unusual in many countries, the system above has some common ground with Spanish/Portuguese conventions. Simplifying, in many Spanish/Portuguese-speaking countries you might have two surnames: one from your father and one from your mother (and I believe in Portugal some people even four surnames). This is roughly demonstrated in the diagram below (without caring about ordering), for comparison with the systems above. But, ultimately, the element that gets passed on to the next generation is usually the name you received from your father. So it’s still fundamentally a gender-biased system, and one that could be made fairer.