It was common for Europeans to have one name 1,000 years ago. I'm Jonathan. Full stop. But last names grew to symbolize relationships with society over time. They stemmed from clans and class and titles and towns. If you met someone called Goldsmith, that person probably smithed gold.
But a problem appeared: Servants, slaves, children, and women were a white man's property, so they fell under his family name. Now, generations later, a black woman somewhere in Alabama goes by the last name Chadwick after her great-great-grandfather's slave-owner's grandfather's hometown in England.
Chadwick, by the way, means "Chad's dairy farm" in Old English.
We inherit this system, this process, and, if we don't question it, we perpetuate it. It's quiet. It's subtle. And it holds small power asymmetries in place. In that sense, last names have the potential to stand for something much, much bigger.
I should pause to acknowledge that most couples who keep one partner's last name don't intend any harm -- far from it -- and there are a panoply of legitimate reasons why people make that choice. Many are simply trying to connect with family histories in the best way they know how, and I applaud them for that.
I also applaud people who tackle this problem directly. My parents hyphenated their names in the 1970s, for example. My mom was Camery, and my dad was Hoggatt, and I was born a Camery-Hoggatt.
Upside: Both families are represented equally.
Downside: This only works for one generation.
I married Rebecca Jones. If we hyphenated, we would have become the Jones-Camery-Hoggatts, and if our kids and grandkids hyphenate, they'll have last names like Tutu-Smithersby-Rodrigues-Jones-Camery-Hoggatt, and that just seems irresponsible.
So we picked a new last name.
We wanted one that's easy to pronounce and that fits well with our first names. Simple. That's why, on our wedding day, we both took the last name Jackson. We changed our single-names to middle names to carry on family histories; I became Jonathan Jones Camery-Hoggatt Jackson. Jonathan Jackson for short. We'll pass our family tree along to our children through their middle names, too, without making their last name sound like a law firm.
This kind of thing makes the social media rounds quickly, so Rebecca and I braced for a backlash. The public response was surprising.
One woman tried to insult me by saying that I must have a small penis. This struck me as odd for three reasons: First, I hadn't considered correlating penis size with resistance to social norms. Second, each body is unique. I will never be insulted by comparisons to anyone's body type. Third, my penis is probably bigger than hers. Sadly, sexism comes in all shapes and sizes. But her reaction wasn't surprising.
Much resistance came from the people we least expected -- a handful of friends who advocate gender equality. They simply assumed Rebecca would take my name, so our decision threw them off balance. That's fair. We're all porous; social conventions seep under the skin, take root, and tilt our expectations. This resistance proved complex, but it wasn't surprising, either.
The real surprise came from the flood of support we received. Most of the married people with whom we spoke asked these questions at some point, too, and none of them found easy answers. The conversations themselves show that a growing number of people examine these social constructs instead of taking them for granted.
Our society needs an overhaul, and this last name choice won't make a huge difference by itself. We know that. It's quiet. It's subtle. But it still undermines small power asymmetries. In that sense, our last name has the potential to stand for something much, much bigger:
It symbolizes our relationship with society itself.
Follow Jonathan Jackson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jchjackson