Are American newlyweds blending their last names?

Language and how we use it.
Aug. 16 2006 1:15 PM

Keeping Up With the Smoneses

Are American newlyweds blending their last names?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

"Word reaches us of new linguistic horrors concocted by the Americans in their continuing assault upon our common tongue," Carol Sarler announced in the British Observer on July 30. The grave violation of the English language? "The meshing of two names to create a single new one." Just as "the trash-rags of Hollywood" have fused Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie into "Brangelina," Sarler wrote, meshing names is "now quite the real-life rage for suburban newlyweds."

If you've read the British news in recent weeks, you might have come away convinced that American couples are crazy about "meshing"—that when John U.S. Smith weds Mary America Jones, they inevitably anoint themselves the Smoneses (or the Jiths). Besides the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, and BBC News Magazine have all run stories on the putative trend in the last month. (Even the English-language China Daily picked up the news, scoffing at the latest fad among America's "well-meaning liberals.")

There's just one problem with these trend-spotting pieces—they all list only the same two examples. One, at least, is recent: In 2004, when New York Times correspondent Jodi Wilgoren got married to Gary Ruderman, an architect and playwright, they changed their surnames to Rudoren. * The only other case of "meshing" the articles mention is that of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who used to be Tony Villar before marrying Corina Raigosa … in 1988. Some trend!

So, what's the source of this media frenzy? Jodi Rudoren wrote a first-person account of her surname choice for the New York Times Sunday Styles section back in February, but a column by Maureen Dowd in the July 8 Times seemed to get the ball rolling. Dowd suggested that "there might be a less-than-patriarchal trend toward guys agreeing to merge their last names to create a new surname when they get married." But Dowd's only examples of Smones-style merging are, sure enough, the Rudorens and the Villaraigosas. It's enough to make this "trend" seem like a columnist's contrivance.

As it turns out, there have been scattered name-blenders on both sides of the Atlantic for the last few decades, but the phenomenon has never been common enough to merit being called a trend—and it doesn't appear to be gaining any ground. Sociologists studying marital naming practices report that examples are few and far between. Laurie Scheuble of Penn State surveyed 600 married women from a university staff directory and came across only one such case. She estimates that the overall rate of blended names is even lower in the population at large, since such unusual name choices are more common among the well-educated women who work at universities. Similarly, British researcher Susan Tyler-Damon found only a handful of examples after several years of study on women's marital names in England and Wales.

In the United States, the true name-meshing pioneers long predate the Villaraigosas. The earliest examples uncovered by a newspaper database search hail from the 1970s, when the feminist movement encouraged couples to explore hyphenation and other unconventional naming practices. Jean Westhafer and Paul Moore of Grand Island, N.Y., for example, became the Westmoores in 1975, and Michael Weintraub and Janice Myrick of San Diego dubbed themselves the Weinricks three years later.

In a related phenomenon born in the '70s, some parents kept their own surnames but saddled their kids with a hybrid. Couples who tried to do this sometimes ran afoul of antiquated statutes regulating the naming of children and had to plead their cases in court. In Hawaii in 1979, Alena Jech and Adolf Befurt successfully fought to give their son the surname Jebef. A few years later in Florida, Dean Skylar and Christine Ledbetter won the right to name their son Sydney Skybetter. (In 1987, New Jersey pre-empted yet another court challenge by revising its regulations when a Greenberg and a McBride wanted to name their child Greenbride.)

As for couples fusing their surnames upon marriage, the New York Times wedding announcements continue to reveal the occasional Luband (Lubinsky + Rittenband) or Ryman (Rawlins + Hyman). Some creative newlyweds work up concoctions that draw a few letters from each of their surnames—like Lumea, which does seem preferable to the hyphenated alternative, Tlumacki-Head.

But one Times announcement garnered more attention than all the others: the momentous news in 1992 that Michael Flaherty and Valerie Silverman would henceforth be known as the Flahermans. Their decision attracted national attention; everyone from U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek to Calvin Trillin and William Safire found the item newsworthy. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen crowed (erroneously but with admirable enthusiasm): "I have pinpointed the exact day and date a trend began, when something new was seen under the sun, when the semi-convention of the hyphenated name ... was replaced by this name that smacks of a leveraged buy-out."

Contacted at their San Francisco home, the Flahermans were amused to hear how closely the latest journalistic dog pile mirrors their own experience in the spotlight 14 years ago. Michael (now a managing director of the private equity firm New Mountain Capital) and Valerie (a general pediatrics fellow at UC San Francisco) recall their name being debated by drive-time DJs, who invited listeners to call in with blended versions of their own married names. They've just had their fourth child, firmly cementing the Flaherman name for future generations (unless, of course, the children turn out to be meshers too). But they find that their choice still elicits endless cocktail conversation, sometimes provoking intense arguments over what a name represents.

Despite three decades of experimentation, the blending of surnames still subverts expectations in a way that seems to make many people (including some journalists and columnists) deeply uneasy. Perhaps some day name-meshing will truly catch on. If it does, don't blame Brangelina.

Correction, August 17, 2006: This piece originally stated that the Rudorens got married last year. They were married in 2004. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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