Sunday Summary: 8.19.18Do you like your last name?

We tend to think of surnames as set, but that’s not so. Names are changed routinely in cases of adoption, marriage, and divorce. Immigrants refine their names to fit in more; aspiring actors and musicians take new ones to blend in less.

My feelings about my surname are complicated. I was born with a wildly unusual last name: Niadna. It belonged to my step-grandfather, who adopted my father. But the marriage didn’t last, and I never met that particular step-grandfather. (My grandmother remarried again, and the man I knew as my grandfather was a rock. But by then, my dad was already all grown up, launched into the world with this borrowed surname.)

As it happens, Niadna had been whittled down from a longer surname. I’ve seen the original written out a few times, and it’s a doozy. Not that Niadna, with the d-n, is a piece of cake.

And I actively disliked my stand-out surname. Hated that pause that told me the person calling roll had gotten to my how-do-you-say-it name.

But what I really disliked? The questions. The guesses about the name’s provenance. Mostly because my answer was so very unsatisfying.

My parents and siblings were the only Niadnas I’d ever met. I didn’t know much about the origin, or the meaning, or anything about it. I knew it was Polish, and I most certainly was not. There were no family holidays with cousins and grandparents with the name. No stories of the first ancestor arriving in the US and dealing with questions of assimilation. (Thanks to the internet, I’ve found fragments of those stories – but they’re not mine.)

Instead of connecting me to something larger, my surname marked a dead end exactly where you’d hope to find a path.

I’d guess that others feel this way, too. Family isn’t always easy, and surnames can be imposed – slavery is the most obvious example. But other stories are out there, too, tales of those in the minority who shed their surname in order to advance, while trying to remain faithful, in some way, to their heritage. Other times, as in my case, they can feel pretty random.

And so this story really resonated with me. We cannot be indifferent to names. Names are alive and they ask things of us—sometimes too much.” Beautifully said. Because when those complex and clearly other surnames work? They’re so very powerful. Yes, they’re a tether to another time and place, but they serve as a kite string, too, allowing us to move forward.

Right before I was about to hit publish on this post, I found one more reflection on the value of family surnames. A different life experience, but a similar conclusion, I think.

Elsewhere online:

  • Did you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? It’s Australian, but I found it on Netflix in the US. The heroine’s unusual name drew me in: Phryne. My post on the name is routinely among the most-viewed on this site because, well, who writes about Phryne? (At first glance, I thought it was a needlessly complicated re-spelling of Fern.) Now the series has inspired a spin-off, set in the 1960s, featuring Miss Fisher’s niece. Her name? Peregrine. If you’re a fan of the series, I’m sure you have so. many. questions. And if you’re a fan of names? Well, I’m wondering if we’ll see an uptick in parents considering Peregrine for a girl …
  • I’ve loved the name Bay for ages, but I’m not sure if Bay Bieber is a catchy, unforgettable combination, or a set-up for a lifetime of being known as Bay B. Factor in an older half-brother famous for singing “baby, baby, baby oh …” and this might be kind of a lot. (Apologies if the song is now lodged in your brain.)
  • These lists of names by style might be the best thing I’ve read this summer. Call me crazy, but I really hope pretty much all of those upcoming names catch on! (Well, maybe not Unique. How crazy would it be to see Unique in the US Top 1000? It appeared a few times in the 1990s, into the early 2000s.)
  • Funny – we were talking about Promise, inspired by this list above. And then Swistle came up with a long list of Colonial virtue style middle names. She’s not sticking to names that were used at some earlier point in American history; just ones that seem like they maybe-possibly-might’ve-been. The comments are stellar.
  • Last week it was Wilding. This week, it’s Legend Wilde. Parents continue to turn it up to eleven when it comes to epic boy names. But then, Maverick now charts in the US Top 100, so maybe these big, bold names aren’t really that big and bold?
  • Are you following this series on star names from Roses & Cellar Doors? I’ve been thinking about Lucero lately, so it’s fun to see it pop up here.
  • Speaking of stars … I finally saw the fifth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The first movie came out way back in 2003, so it’s interesting to watch how they introduce new characters. It’s already confirmed that a sixth movie is coming, and one of the new characters will be back: Carina. I loved the backstory they gave her name, and the way it played into the plot. I’ll keep this spoiler free, but did you see the movie? What did you think?
  • Bluejean: used as a baby name nearly a century before David Bowie’s 1984 hit single. And if that song has now replaced the Bieber hit in your head, well, you’re welcome.
  • Loving this series on nature names from Tulip By Any Names. She’s only up to B so far, so we’ll get to enjoy this one for weeks to come!
  • In praise of naming our sons Roger and Raymond.
  • I haven’t seen Love, Simon yet, but some of the character names caught my eye. There’s a Lyle and a Bram, but also Jacques and Blue. The latter two names are pseudonyms used online, but an important part of the plot. I’m intrigued …

That’s all for this week! As always, thank you for reading – and have a great week.

Girl Names 8.19.18 Boy Names 8.19.18

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. I was born with a fairly common Welsh name, but my folks divorced and my mom arbitrarily changed my last name to my stepfather’s when she remarried (not recommended, at all). Eventually, i was adopted and that not-terribly-positive word surname became legal. But my stepfather died was estranged from his family, and died when I was in my twenties. My mom went back to her maiden name. So that name has very little connection to me. I hear young feminists ask why anyone would give up her name on marriage, and my answer is, I’ve had 3 surnames in my life, and Stewart is the only one I chose. This is the name that represents my family.

  2. I’m in a similar situation with my surname. It’s from my (step)grandfather, who met my grandmother because he was the doctor who delivered my father. (She was nineteen, married to a man who was already married, and broke.) She agreed to pay the doctor back each month until the bill was settled, so they fell in love via correspondence. They married when my dad was two and my dad’s name was changed to the new surname. BUT my grandfather and grandmother didn’t stay together. He had another family from his earlier marriage, and his sons were antagonistic towards my dad for being the kid who got to live with their dad as he grew up. Our families still function as family in many ways, but I distinctly remember my uncle telling me that I “wasn’t a real [surname here]” when I was ten years old. So even though it’s a fabulous story, and my biological grandfather was a terrible abusive womanizer and I’m glad I don’t have his name, I still feel actively disconnected to my surname. It’s been a source of isolation for my dad for a long time, and for me as well with my cousins. It feels like a disguise, like something that was designed to cover up my dad’s real paternal story, which is actually even more outlandish than the story I’ve related here. My dad and I have discussed changing our last names together, since we’re very close. But I’m also married and didn’t want to change my last name for my husband, who has one of the most generic names on the planet, so it feels weird to change it with my father instead of my husband. It’s my name, and I like it as far as last names go. But I feel stuck with it. Ugh.

  3. I absolutely love my married surname…it sounds lovely and very English. Of course I didn’t marry my husband just for the name, but when I first found out his surname I became a little more interested!

    1. HA! I often hear surnames and find myself thinking that I could’ve fallen in love with some of them! And Easterbrook is all kinds of gorgeous …

  4. I really think Bay Bieber sounds like “baby bird.” Didn’t they ever say it out loud? This is why it can be helpful to field test a name you’re thinking about using, to notice things you may overlook as you’re focused on the first name in isolation, or the first-middle combo.

  5. My surname has the advantage of anonymity, It is among the most common in the country, easy to pronounce, easy to spell. There are quite a few women with my first, middle and last name living in the area, so I must also give doctors and car care places my birthdate and address so they can access my record. It also is a surname that has no connection to me genealogically. My grandfather was adopted by a maternal aunt and her husband and his surname was changed to his adoptive father’s. The adoptive father had changed the surname to something American sounding when he came over from Finland. His original surname was long and foreign and hard to spell and pronounce. My biological great grandfather, who disappeared and presumably died when my grandfather was young, had a slightly shorter surname that is still a challenge to pronounce. That surname is actually more common for Swedes. I’m also not certain whether it was his original name or if he adopted another name when he left Finland. At one time I thought of changing my last name, but it would have been a bother. There are advantages to having a name that doesn’t automatically identify you on the internet or in other places. I’ve often though as much when I see someone with a unique name who appears in a news article about crime.

    1. There ARE positives to blending in! In fact, now that my name is more ordinary, I’m surprised every time I remember that I’m not the only Abby Sandel …

  6. Aww I’m sorry to hear this story about your maiden surname.
    Mine has a similar story as well. First my dad was adopted, usually a happy beginning right, but sadly the two parents were terrible people, they got divorced, both ended up remarried, my mom and dad had a nasty divorce as well, and my dad died when I was very young, and I never saw any of them again.
    Needless to say my maiden name does not make me happy. I wish I had my mom’s maiden name. It’s such a shame! I really like the family crests, of surnames, and I feel like I don’t have one of my own. They have these awesome married addition ones. Where they take the the maiden name of the wife and the husbands and frame them together. I got my married name, hubbys surname, for our home.
    I would have been thrilled to have a double last name for myself and for our children, but not with my maiden name. I got rid of it ASAP after I was married. It was a nice sounding name, German, which I am according to a dna test, went well with my name, but I don’t like the story.

    1. Oh, Jana, I know where you’re coming from – thank you for sharing your story!

      And yes – I cheerfully took my husband’s last name for lots of reasons, but really? I was mostly eager to have a better story. (In the plot twist department: after years of having a surname of Polish origin that wasn’t mine, I married the son of Polish immigrants, who speaks Polish, with a last name that sounds … not Polish at all. Life is funny …)