Readers often ask if Claire Wolfe is my real name. Apparently they know the flaky habits of writers. And perhaps they suspect I’m on the run from 47 government agencies.
The truest answer is this: Of course Claire Wolfe is my real name. And if I decide tomorrow that I want to be known as Ablamasnort Xlsnoff, that will be my real name, too.
I’m not being flippant. I’m pondering something few of us think about: that we are the owners of our names and can change our identities at will, without the permission or assistance of any government. It's possible even in this corporatized, registered, encoded, licensed, reported, taxed, conscripted, and bureaucratized world.
The ability to change names without government sanction is something we may never take advantage of. But it involves fundamental principles we shouldn’t lightly dismiss -- including the right of self ownership. Historically, ad hoc name changes have also helped many people transform their lives -- a power that’s still in our hands today.
You don’t have to go to court to change your name. One traditional means of name changing is … just use a different one.
This form of name change comes to us from English common law, and is recognized as valid in all but a handful of U.S. states. It’s available to any adult (except a prisoner) who makes the change with no intent to defraud or trample on someone‘s rights. Despite popular belief, you can even use two or three names simultaneously without the Name Police conducting a midnight raid. If you couldn’t, half of Hollywood and plenty of writers would be in the Identity Lockup. (Legal problems with aliases and alternative ID come primarily when you attempt to commit fraud, hide a crime, or gain benefits illegally -- although the possession of “fake ID“ is itself becoming more dicey all the time.)
English common law considered a person innocent unless proven guilty. Both English and American traditions also held that our business was our own unless we trespassed on the rights of others. Thus name changing didn't fall under the authority of the state. Gradually, the presumption of innocence is eroding. Streetside spy cameras, random checkpoints, new-hires databases, biometric ID, and similar accouterments of the surveillance state are law-enforcement investigative tools. They operate on the presumption that every individual is a criminal suspect. To prevent us suspects from evading our investigators, governments have a growing need to permanently fix our identities or tightly supervise any changes we wish to make.
Expect common-law name changes eventually to become either illegal or so cumbersome that a court-ordered change will look good by comparison. In the meantime, however, we still have this freedom.
The sidebar article, “An Itty Bitty Guide to Name Changing,” has information and resources on making a name switch. That’s the easy part. The more vital issue is that, whether we change our names or keep them, names have a power that our culture seems to ignore. Our ancestors surrendered partial authority over their identities to bureaucrats, and we are in the process of surrendering much, much more. Their surrender was to our ancestors’ detriment -- as ours will be to us.
The tradition and power of names
Has it never struck you as odd that in a culture so rich, our naming traditions are so sterile?
You get tagged at birth with a label like William Smith, and what does it say about you? You don’t even know what William means until you look it up in a name-the-baby book. And is it of any deep interest to you that some ancestor once wielded a hammer? Probably not. Yet this essentially meaningless collection of syllables is expected to be your lifelong, most personal ID -- which is downright bizarre when you think about it for more than a minute.
Only if we bear the name of a cherished relative or hero, or strongly identify with a family line (and don‘t mind that our other parent‘s family line is being erased), do our names have much significance beyond their mere sound. Our names are often strangely detached from our personalities, interests, and lives.
That wasn’t always so. The Anglo-Saxons, whose names described courage, cunning, or strength, were in tune with their culture and expressed personal aspirations. The names of the Puritans -- Flie-Fornication, Charity, Discipline, Praise-God, and the like -- may have placed heavy burdens on their bearers, but at least they expressed values. Tribal names around the globe describe totemic connections, personality traits, experiences, aspirations, place of origin, sometimes even day of birth or birth order. Sappy as they were, our own Rainbow-Sunshine-Harmony names of 1960s were at least an attempt to bring meaning back to naming.
Names have power. We recognize that in a limited way. We understand that plain old Susan Weaver magnified herself when she became the exotic Sigourney. And could Margaret Hookham ever have danced as elegantly as Margot Fonteyn? Tiffany suggests a larger cup size than Sadie. Preston is more likely than Cheech to be admitted to prep school. A Rose by any other name does not smell as sweet -- not if the name is Gertrude or Rodham or Spike.
Other cultures have recognized the power of names far more strongly than we, sometimes to the point of superstition. Ancient Chinese doctors burned a piece of paper containing the patient’s name as part of their cures, thus sending the airy, smoky name heavenward. Among the Delaware Indians (and many other tribes), tribal shamans gave children the “real” names by which they were known to the Creator and the Spirit Forces. Since knowledge of this spirit name gave terrible power to conjurers, individuals were universally known by “safe” nicknames, with only a few family members ever learning who they “really“ were.
Many other peoples also accept name changes more readily than we do -- adopting new names routinely. In some tribal cultures, individuals change names at various stages of maturity. (This makes great sense; are we really the same person at 30 or 50 as we are at 15?) The new name signals a new set of responsibilities or marks a notable accomplishment. The Tiwi people, who live on islands north of Australia, historically took seven new names in the 11 formative years from adolescence to young adulthood. It’s so common throughout Africa for people to change their names that if you meet an old acquaintance on the street, you can never be sure if her name will be the same today as it was 10 years ago.
J.R.R. Tolkein understood the power of ever-changing names when he invented his Ents, ancient tree-like beings whose rumbling, rambling names grew longer as each Ent lived and learned. (Ents were astonished at the “hasty” European-style names borne by the Hobbits.)
In the Bible, name changes are part of divinely ordered life changes. Saul, converted by his vision on the road to Damascus, becomes Paul. Abram, chosen by God to be the founder of a great nation, becomes Abraham, and his wife Sarai, Sarah.
Throughout history, name change and life change have gone together. This tranformatory power is still ours. And it drives bureaucrats crazy.
Governments and names
We’ve all heard that, sometime in the Middle Ages, our English or European ancestors adopted fixed surnames to help avoid confusion as the population grew and became more urbanized.
This is a pleasant half-truth. The real tale is more complex.
In Britain before the Norman Conquest (and in other parts of Europe), people had one given name. They may also have had a casual, highly changeable byname to help distinguish all the many Marys, Annes, Johns, Elizabeths, Williams, and Henrys from each other. Most of these bynames fell into four categories: occupations (Matthew Baker, Alfred Innkeeper, William the Brewer), patronymics or matronymics (Richard Nelson, who may have been the son of Neil or Nell, John Megson, son of Margaret), place names (Matilda Atwater, Robert Oakes, James Bygate), and nicknames (John the Stout, Agnes Catsnose, Charles Fairhead).
Bynames weren’t fixed from generation to generation. They were applied solely -- and sometimes quite creatively -- to the individual they described. William the Carter might father John Williamson, who in turn might father a brood whose members bore the bynames Hunter, Farmer, Carpenter, and Seamer. It was common for one individual to be known by different names in his lifetime. Matthew Allardson might also be Matthew Butcher and, after a heroic showing in wartime, Matthew Archer, Matthew Bowman, Matthew Braver, or Matthew Godthanks. Legal documents are full of people who were known by two, three, four, or even seven completely different sets of names.
Whether the name was pronounced Schmidt, Ferraro, Kowalski, Smid, Smed, Szmidman, Petulengro, Kovacs, Gough, Seppänen, Fèvre, Kálvaitis, or Kuznetsov (all of which mean Smith), the naming traditions from country to country were similar -- and flexible.
Around the year 1000 A.D., Venetian merchants, wanting a better way to track the people who owed them money, rediscovered the hierarchal Roman naming system, which had died out when the empire fell. The Venetians’ created a simplified version using fixed surnames.
The French aristocracy adopted the new naming practice, which then began to be adopted across France.
Shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror sent agents throughout England to survey the population and its possessions for his Doomsday Book (a record that still exists). The Doomsday Book was given its name by the people in recognition of its dire purpose: to mercilessly discover, record, assess, and tax everything taxable in the newly cowed country. Among other things, William ordered his subjects to identify themselves by surname.
Those surnames were still not fixed and inheritable, but were soon to become so. By the 12th Century, the landed gentry of England had adopted fixed family names to link the aristocracy with its holdings from generation to generation. By the end of the 14th Century, most English people bore inheritable surnames, although some parts of what we now know as the U.K. didn‘t have them until the 18th Century.
Other European countries took longer to make the change. Poland didn’t begin until the 17th Century. Poles and Danes often lacked “modern” surnames until the mid-19th Century.
(Interestingly, the very last Europeans to make the change were the monarchs of England. Despite being of the house of Plantagenet or Saxe-Coburg or Hanover, British monarchs and their progeny didn’t acquire inheritable last names until the present Queen Elizabeth made Windsor (and for lesser descendants, Mountbatten-Windsor) an official surname by royal decree.)
Fixed surnames weren’t an enhancement for the bearers. They weren’t voluntarily adopted to help neighbors tell each other apart, as our cultural myth implies. They were a convenience for the growing class of bureaucrats, tax gatherers, professional military men, and statistics-keepers. They made people more easy to tax, track, assess, and conscript in an increasingly populous, anonymous environment.
Where surnames weren’t imposed by law or royal decree, they were imposed in the same way many paperwork requirements are imposed today -- by making it difficult to survive if you didn‘t comply. If you didn’t have a fixed surname, you risked being taxed twice. If you bore two or three names, you might be conscripted multiple times. If your son didn’t inherit your name, he might face questions when he inherited your property.
The countries where people were slow to adopt the “modern” naming systems usually resorted to national laws to achieve standardization.
The Scandinavian countries, which had a tradition of using the father’s name as the basis of the child’s surname, were latecomers. Denmark finally passed “modern” naming laws in 1828 and 1856.
Turkey forced inheritable surnames upon its population in 1933, and Persia (Iran) did so in the 1920s. (And an ancient naming tradition reasserted itself as people selected place names and occupation names, now including Scientist and Photographer), .
Where countries adopted surnames over time, individuals had a better chance of controlling their own name. Countries that imposed surnames by decree weren’t always so kind. What happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe, Germany, and Austria is a sad example.
Germany issued a decree in the 18th Century, requiring German and Austrian Jews to adopt German surnames. In 1804, Tsar Alexander I of Russia imposed a similar requirement on the Jews within his realm.
Jewish tradition dictated a single name, followed by the name of the father (Moshe ben (son of) Shmuel or Simon bar-Jonah). Some Jews were able to meet the new legal requirements by taking occupation surnames (Goldschmidt), cultural names (Levy, from the tribe of Levites), patronymics (Isaacson), place names, or simply ornamental names chosen for their attractiveness (Lilienthal, from the flower).
Being forced to give up Jewish religious traditions in favor of Gentile ones was so offensive that a few Jews managed to register legal names bearing hidden protests. Rabbi R. Mermelstein, rabbinical advisor to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership and author of the "Ask the Rabbi" column, relates, “One of the greatest Talmudic commentators from that period refused 'tzu vehren fargoyisht' (Yiddish -- 'to become like a Gentile'), so he listed his surname as Schick -- an acronym for 'Shem Yisroel Kodesh' (Hebrew -- 'the name of a Jew is holy').” And yes, its fair to assume his descendents became famous for manufacturing razors.
A Jew of means could purchase (bribe) his way into a “desirable” name. But not all had a choice. Those without money and those who refused to submit to the imposed naming scheme were “punished” with names like Schmaltz, Lumpe, and even the vulgarity, Schmuck.
As long as they remained in their countries of origin many were stuck with those names. But American immigration records reveal that among other freedoms beleaguered Jews sought here was the freedom to rid themselves forever of names like Eselhaupt (ass’s head), Kohlkopf (cabbage head or blockhead), and Kanalgeruch (canal stench).
Regulation-ridden Germany long forbade name changes, other than state-sanctioned ones made upon marriage or adoption. Today it authorizes a few others (for instance, to people undergoing sex-change operations). These can cost more than $1,500 and always require intense bureaucratic scrutiny. Germany further requires parents of newborns to select from a list of government-approved names or demonstrate that the name they want to give their child is in customary use as a given name somewhere in the world. Even at that, the state holds veto rights.
The German government did make one exception to its name-changing ban. The Nazi regime required every male Jew without an identifiably Jewish surname to adopt the middle name “Israel” and every such female Jew to adopt the middle name “Sarah.” These names were placed on their national identity cards to make it harder for them to evade all the many restrictions imposed on Jews, and in the end, harder to avoid being murdered.
The gift of name changing
Although few of us take advantage of the common-law right to change names at will, the ability to do so has been a great gift. It has enabled millions to shake off old personae and old burdens without the added (and occasionally costly) necessity of begging, hat-in-hand, before a judge.
We’ve already seen how it enabled immigrants to shed unwanted identities. Sometimes it also enabled them simply to blend in better by changing a “foreign sounding” name to one that would help them adapt in a not-always-tolerant new land. It even enabled a few creative Americans to sound more foreign. (It was once a plus for any opera singer to seem Italian, and for American violinists to bear Russian-Jewish names.)
Today: An abused child, grown to adulthood, can throw off a hated parent’s name without having to bow before another frightening authority figure.
A victim fleeing a stalker can, with an ad hoc name change and some privacy cautions, assume a new identity without leaving an obvious paper trail for an obsessive criminal to trace.
A person who has struggled from childhood under an odious name can emerge from a chrysalis by independently shucking it.
A political dissident can take a new name for image or safety without having to petition his enemies to do so.
A person turning around a troubled life can gain confidence and a new self-image by creating a new name for himself, with or without the blessing of watchful officialdom.
A poor person, without the means to pay court costs or lawyer’s fees, can change his name as effectively as can a millionaire movie star.
Fixed names, on the other hand, are a tremendous convenience to bureaucrats, and have other advantages for maintaining orderliness. (I can just hear geneaologists, who love to trace family lines, cursing the nuisance of impermanent names.) Like it or not, we live in a world that increasingly values order over individuality and freedom.
As the U.S. and world governments tighten I.D. requirements, the state gains cradle-to-grave control over an individual’s identity. Even where casual name changes aren’t expressly outlawed, the complexities of modern life make them more cumbersome to implement. (Agnes Catsnose didn’t have to notify five credit card companies and the DMV if she wanted to become Agnes Oakwood, and didn't have to have her entry in the FBI's fingerprint and DNA databases annotated and re-sorted.) This problem will increase as national ID systems and global birth registration take over.
The result is that, for the sake of bureaucratic consistency -- for the sake of taxation, conscription, statistics-keeping, social management, corporate convenience, and human-resource allocation -- your identity slips further out of your own control. The ability to change a name easily may seem a small thing to lose, especially if you’re perfectly content living your entire life as Winston Smith or Jane Doe. But along with the ability to change our name goes the presumption of innocence and the belief that our private business is exactly that -- private and our own. We should think carefully before surrendering such a personal aspect of our lives to anyone.
An Itty Bitty Guide to Name Changing
The first step in making a common-law name change is to start using your new name. Tell your friends, relatives, and business associates (and keep reminding them when they forget).
Step two – unless you’re one of the rare beings who moves through the world without paperwork -- is getting documents and accounts changed over to the new name. You may be surprised to discover that some businesses won’t ask you for any documentation of the change. Most will, however.
So one of the earliest things you’ll want to do is get a key ID document, like a drivers license, passport, or company ID, switched to the new name. To do this, you may need to submit a notarized affidavit of name change (draw it up yourself or use a form they give you; it’ll cost only a couple of dollars to have it notarized). This affidavit might contain your certification alone, or might contain verification from someone else who knows you. Ask the agency or company what form of certification it requires.
I once knew someone who made up a new name while standing in line at the DMV and got that name put on her license without any documentation. She didn’t even get a raised eyebrow from the clerk. But that was in the olden days, a couple of years ago. You probably couldn’t do that now.
If a bureaucrat insists on a court order, he’s probably misinformed and you should speak with someone who has better information (unless it’s a state official in one of the few states that doesn’t recognize an ad hoc change).
Once you have a key ID document, it’s smooth sailing to change all your credit cards, bank accounts, wills, trusts, etc. It just takes time. And remember, as long as you’re not committing fraud, there’s nothing that says you must stop going by two different names, or that you can’t possess accounts or documentation in both names.
I’m supposed to add here that I’m not a lawyer and none of this is legal advice. Verify everything for yourself before proceeding.
To learn whether your state will recognize a common-law name change: Call the clerk of the local court. If she says no, doublecheck with a lawyer.
If you decide you want to make an “official” change in court: The legal name-changing procedures of all 50 states are online at http://www.namechangelaw.com/. (Bear in mind that these statutes usually won’t address common law changes, only describe court procedures.)
If you ask a judge to okay your new name, you’ll have to meet the two standards described in ‘Whose Name Is It, Anyway?” (no fraud, no abuse of others’ rights) and several other criteria, as well. To wit: Your new name cannot be “confusing” (“827xts6” probably won’t go over too well, though “Three-Six” might). It can’t be a racial epithet. And it can’t be “fighting words” So if you want to have a name that’s going to make people poke you in the nose or tell them that you’d like to poke them, don’t ask a judge to help.
Otherwise, it’s all pretty simple. You’ll probably have a harder time getting your mother to accept your new name than getting the government to recognize it.
Information on the history of names is from The Story of Surnames by William Dodgson Bowman, (George Routledge & Sons. Ltd., 1932), The Story of Surnames by L.G. Pine (Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1966), A Book About Names by Milton Meltzer (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1984), The Relevance of Surnames in Geneaology (Society of Geneaologists Information Leaflet No. 7), ”What is in a Name Greatly Interests German Officialdom“ by Daniel Benjamin (Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1993), various Internet genealogy sources, and from Rabbi R. Mermelstein (who points out that his ancestors must have been workers in decorative or memorial “marble-stone”) This article was inspired by passages in Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott (Yale University Press, 1998). Carl Watner gets thanks for research and reality checking.