Dynamist Blog


Reader Paul Hager writes:

Thought I'd toss in my family's approach to naming. My wife's parents followed the traditional approach -- the male surname became the family name. In their case, the original name in Germany was Weihrauch (incense or, literally "holy smoke"). When they made in to the U.S. (the family barely made it out of Germany in 1938), they changed the name to Wyle.

In patrilineal descent, the family name is passed down through the father's line. The idea of the female's family name disappearing when the woman marries has always seemed grossly unfair to me. I don't see matrilineal descent as being any better, though it has never existed in the U.S., as far as I know. The hyphenate name approach -- I don't know what to call it -- is problematic because if you want to keep the family names through multiple generations, you end up with ridiculously long names. The alternative would have to involve some sort of complex formula for dropping one of the hypenates when the hypenate marries.

Back when I was studying cultural anthropology, I came across a different approach called bilineal descent. In bilineal descent, sons take the father's name and daughters take the wife's name. This made a lot of sense to me. I suggested this approach to my wife, who kept her family name -- I also pointed out that the Wyle line in the U.S. had produced many more females than males and I thought it particularly appropriate for a Jewish line that had escaped the Holocaust to continue whether it produced males or not. So, we adopted bilineal descent.

We now have two daughters -- Liana Valentina Wyle and Alissa Lise Wyle -- and no sons. Works for me.

Additional note on the middle names, which I picked. Valentina is for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Lise is for Lise Meitner, who was robbed of a Nobel Prize in physics for the 1938 discovery of fission in uranium because she was (1) female and (2) Jewish.

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