Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lessons from a Hyphenate

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a bar prep rep and he asked me if I was married and I said, "engaged - getting married next year." He looked at me, confused. "How do you already have two last names?" I explained, as usual, that my last names are my parent's last names.
Recently, I feel as if I have been doing a lot more explaining. I have also been doing a lot more spelling and more repeating of my last name. I testified in front of the city council on Tuesday and when I got up there and said my name, the chair of the committee said "wait, WHAT?" It was a little embarassing. And while often I cut the confusion by just using one name, when I'm dealing with anything legal or official, I use both.
At my cousin's fiance's shower a little while ago, we got into a long chat about hyphenated last names, with those of us who already have a hyphenated last name firmly on one side. (The "don't do it" side.) Another cousin, who has two last names, but no hyphen, doesn't have the same problems that we hyphenates do. My sister and I were griping about the fact that some computer systems still don't accept hyphens, and that when you fly, if your credit card doesn't match the name the computer has in the system, you can't check in at a kiosk. (I actually don't have this problem as much because my credit cards only have my first and middle initials and then my full last name, with no hyphen.)
A few days later, I placed an online order - and the field for name refused to accept my hyphen for my shipping address. I grumbled, deleted the hyphen, and placed my order - yeah, it's no big deal - but it gets annoying the 200th time you have to do it. Spelling both names for people and not knowing what name you are filed under? It's complicated. When I talk to people who are choosing to hyphenate, I look at them with amazement. And, not gonna lie, I feel sorry for them. They may be lucky - and they may go through life without complications, or feeling thrilled when they spell out their new hyphenated last name. But I would hate to realize how much of a hassle it is after going through all the trouble to change it. I think there are some things you should know before you hyphenate, and I think you should hear them from somebody who has had a hyphenated last name for more than 20 years, not somebody who is still giddy with the newness of his or her hyphenated last name (no offense intended, these things just build over time). I don't expect anyone to take this particularly seriously, but I can assure you that it is easy to blow off the PITA that is the hyphenated last name until you have one. Hyphenating really is the right choice for some people, but for a lot of people, they don't realize what they're getting into.

So should you hyphenate? Take this test!
1.) How many letters in your new last name? If it's two short last names (3-5 letters each). Go for it - your name will probably always fit on a form. Bonus points if your first name is super short.
2.) Are your names are easy to pronounce or super common? Go for it. It will still be a pain to explain the hypen, but you won't have to spell your name.
3.) Max of two syllables each? Go for it!
4.) Think twice if either name is more than 2 syllables, or more than 6 letters long. It can still work. But proceed with caution to Step 5.
5.) Say your new hyphenated last name. Then spell it. Then spell it again. If you have anybody in your life who is hard of hearing, spell your new hyphenated last name to them, and repeat every letter that they ask you to repeat. Have them write it down, to make sure they are hearing you, and then see what letters are a problem. For me, it's "d" and "b" which sound similar, and "f" which a lot of people confuse with "s". Also, "n" sounds like "m" apparently.
6.) Learn (or make up) phonetic alphabet signs for all of the letters of your new last name. Focus especially on those letters you identified in (5). Say the whole name, with those words, several times. "S as in sailor; M as in Mike, U as in Ursula, R as in Rose, F as in Frank, F as in Frank - hyphen - D as in David, A as in Apple, V as in Victor, I as in India, D as in David, S as in Sailor, O as in Octopus, N as in November.". You will probably find yourself only needing to use the phonetic alphabet for those letters you identified in exercise (5). But it's handy to have them all at your fingertips, for Step 7.
7.) Call a friend on a bad phone connection while you are riding your local public transit. Say your new last name and listen to them repeat it back to you. Then spell it for them. Loudly. Twice. Don't go too fast, or she's gonna ask you to slow down. See how many dirty looks you get from the folks around you. Gauge how uncomfortable you feel.
8.) This brings us to our final question - are you annoyed yet? Are you exhausted from the sheer act of spelling your last name? Or does the romanticism of sharing your spouse's last name win out over the annoyance? If you are annoyed, figure something else out, as a hyphenated last name is not for you. If you are not annoyed, congratulations! Welcome to the world of extremely complicated last names!

A few final tips:
1) Never ever ever have an email address with your full hyphenated last name. My school's policy is to assign every student's email as This is fine for my friend Anna.Smith. It is not fine for me. My email address is 23 letters long. It is insane. I don't use it. Go with first name and last initials, or first initial/name and one last name, if you can.
2) If your credit card company will let you, get a card with a single first initial and middle initial and no hyphen. It will help eliminate the problems at airports and with shipping and billing when you place online orders.
3) Be prepared to solve other people's problems. Instead of telling the people at the MVA that it's not your problem that they can't fit your name, suggest to them that they use your middle initial instead of your full middle name. (It may seem commonsense, but trust me, it is not.) If someplace can't find you in their system, suggest that they check under your second last name, without waiting for them to realize it. If you are making a reservation for a restaurant, or an appointment for a haircut or something else that doesn't require your full name, use only one last name.
4.) Don't get hysterical. If you are reading this and thinking "yeah, I'll hyphenate but I'll mostly just use my new last name", be aware that the choice of which last name you go by will often not be up to you. A professor I worked for simply started to refer to me as Ellie Momslast, dropping Dadslast entirely, without asking. I could have thrown a fit, but it would have made me look uptight and like I enjoyed inconveniencing people. It simply wasn't worth the fight. It is okay to correct somebody - if you are planning to use one name professionally and one socially, it is okay to tell a boss that "Professionally I go by Cheryl Smurf". But it may not hold. I asked a few professors first year to only use one last name, and they all still used both. Some people will ask you what you want to be called. Some people will not. Some people will insist on calling you by your entire last name, but they will be somewhat resentful about it. I got introduced at a function, by a professor, as "Ellie GodherlastnameissoricidulousIdon'tknowit." Um. Embarassing. I could pick a fight. But you have to have a sense of humor about it, because it's your name, and if you don't, you'll burn out and find yourself resenting your spouse. Which brings me to my last point.
5.) Don't resent your spouse. I could resent my parents for my last name, but I don't. I understand why they did this, and I understand it was the best choice for them. You may find yourself getting resentful later in life after the millionth time you have to spell your last name for somebody. You may find that you have to check in at the airport kiosk and your spouse skips right through. You may find that you resent him/her because they are not going through what you are going through. But the end of the day, you made this choice. (Unless they are pressuring you to hyphenate. In which case, I say, fair's fair and you both have to do it.)

Did you decide whether a hyphen was for you? What are you doing otherwise?


  1. Hello!
    I was very interested in this post when I saw the title, because I too have a hyphenated last name. My parents were hippies in the '70s and they felt it was the right thing to do, my last name is 15 characters long (with the hyphen) and 4 syllables. My father had to go to family court to have his name legally changed. Have I ever resented it? NO. I was a little disappointed that you seemed against it. I have always been really proud, and a little be satisfied at mystifying people with this extremely complex name. It fits on the tax forms and that is all i care about. So, what to do when i get married next July? I am making my future husband change his name along with me, we are going to hyphenate one of my names with his name. He is a little annoyed, but I have made it very clear that i hate this patriarchal tradition, and i also want our whole 'new' family to have the same last name, being a good feminist boy he is going along with it. Marriage is a merger, not an acquisition, I will not continue the tradition of women's names being lost.

  2. I always was really proud, as a child, of my dual last names. I thought it was so cool. But since I have entered the "real" wold, I simply find it exhausting. I also find a lot of people think that it is no big deal to hyphenate, and it actually really is. Which is why I devised my "test". Since you have clearly "passed" and don't find your last name annoying or exhausting, obviously hyphenating is a good choice for you.
    I have thought about dropping one last name and taking Mark's, but he's unwilling to hyphenate (and he doesn't expect me to, so it's fair) and I can't blame him, and I won't do it without him doing it.
    I went by one last name (my Mom's) all summer, and it was amazingly freeing, but it made me a little sad at the same time. I'm going to have a job where I have to say, sign, and spell my name a lot though, so I think I will go to only one last name for convenience. (And also, it's weird to be married and have a hyphenated last name that is entirely different from your husband.)
    The funny thing is though, I can't bear to not hyphenate my kids last names...
    Do you use both names professionally? I have found that a number of the women I work with have 2 last names and are hyphenate children, but professionally they go by only one last name.

  3. We were discussing hyphenating, and this is an extremely helpful perspective. We didn't even think of all the difficulties that might come with a hyphenated last name! I think we'll be taking the traditional name change route - keeping my name isn't worth all the hassle for me. Thanks for sharing!

    PS Also makes me wonder if they have these same difficulties with hyphenation in Hispanic cultures where it's traditional to take the mother's and the father's last names.

  4. Katerina - I wonder that as well - I thought, growing up, that hyphenating would become more common and I wouldn't be explaining it to people all the time. Even now, I feel that if it was more culturally acceptable, it wouldn't be quite the hassle. So where it is traditional, I imagine and hope they have an easier time, much like in scientific and academic communities in which it is not at all weird for a woman to keep her name.

  5. I have a friend of Hispanic descent whose parents combined their names, rather than hyphenating, so her last name was just the two of them mushed together. Interestingly, if you search on her last name, you find a lot of people who have the same name but hyphenated or with a space. That said, her parents' names are five letters each, so even combined, it's still manageable.

  6. Oh boy what a good topic :-) As a child I loved my hyphenate name...all 16 characters and 5 syllables of it.

    But after becoming an married adult that had to produce my birth certificate to prove that I didn't change my name after I got married, I find it frustrating. Unfortunately, I think I always expected that hyphenates would be more and more common, but they don't seem to be. I assumed that computers would eventually allow 17 characters, but they still don't. I thought Y2K was going to bring in a new age of unrestricted text boxes, but sadly it did not.

    I'm still a feminist that doesn't think women should give up their identity when they get married, but I long to sometimes just be, "Mr and Mrs X." Because, lets be honest...making a reservation for one last name is just so easy and simple :-)

  7. I LOVE my hyphenated last name. It's 18 letters and 6 syllables long, with both names difficult to pronounce (one Irish and one Swedish). When I was younger, I wanted to marry someone with a short last name for all the reasons listed in the blog. However, the older I get the more I love my name. I love that it's unique. There are only 4 of us in ALL the world. It sets me apart and people remember it. Yeah, I have to explain myself frequently, spell it out and explain that 'no, I am not married' to people. I can deal with that. Over the last 30 years my hyphenated last name has become a part of me.

    Plus, as a kid if I was mad at 1 parent, I would use the other's last name.

  8. @Paula - that is awesome. There are a lot of advantages to it, especially as a kid.
    I always thought I would feel the same way that most of you seem to about your names...and I'm not sure that I'll ever actually give up half of who I am, or just deal with it...and I love that I'm the only person who comes up when I google my name.
    I'm still not set on what to do about my name, but I did want to give people who are thinking about hyphenating a little perspective from the other side, because I never hear anybody whose contemplating hyphenating talking about what we go through.
    Also, yay other from-birth hyphenates!