The modern world has heralded the collapse of many traditions. Some have fallen out of favor, like pipe smoking, others are no longer socially acceptable, like fox hunting. But one tradition that is neither socially unacceptable nor out of favor is the tradition of family surnames.
Everyone is legally obligated to have one, and they are often cherished. Nonetheless, every year more and more rare surnames become extinct. Two hundred thousand names have disappeared in the U.K. since 1901.
The reason surnames have disappeared is because of a very obvious problem: women taking their husband’s names. On the face of it, you would assume the 50/50 chance of having a son or daughter would mean there a 50 percent chance of your name living on, but you would be wrong.
Every year, far more Smiths are available to marry than Bonnevilles. This means any slight variation in a 50/50 split is amplified, leading to reductions or even extinctions.
China had 12,000 surnames 2,000 years ago, but today only 3,000 are in use. Moreover, the vast majority of the Chinese population have one of just 100 of those names. The three most popular—Li, Wang and Zhang—make up seven percent of the population, equivalent to 300,000,000 people.
In my case, my mom’s surname, Rea, has just 85,000 holders in the U.K., whereas Walker has 900,000. My brothers and I have added three Walkers, but the Reas got nothing, which is mightily unfair.
Some surnames are losing popularity at an alarming rate. Cohen has lost 42 percent of its total population size since 1901. Bill Nighy is one of just 80 people in the world to have his surname, and it is included in Ancestry.com’s Surnames At Risk Register.
In the U.S. the problem seems much more distant because immigrants from across the world have given the country a myriad of surnames. Immigration officers accentuated this effect by spelling names in various, and sometimes bizarre, ways. But even America is hurtling towards surname homogeneity. It will just take longer to happen.
What, if anything, can we do to stop this? Some women with rare names go double barrel. In the U.K., one in 50 people now have a double barrel name. In 1901, that number was one in 50,000 (and they were normally fairly posh).
In the northeast of England, it is a common practice to give your child their mother’s surname as a first name if it is rare.
However, neither of these solutions preserve the name in an unchanged form.
Here’s my solution: I think we should dump the custom of women taking their husband’s surname. I think wives and husbands should keep their own name, and children should have the legal right to choose which one they take when they are 18-years-old. Those with rare surnames are likely to want to keep them, so it is fair to assume children would choose the rarer of their parent’s surnames to use as adults.
Doing this would break with tradition slightly, but it would save names like Pober, Mirren and Febland, all of which have fewer than 50 holders in Britain.
Losing historic surnames likely doesn’t keep people up at night, but they are part of our tradition and we should take care of them. If we don’t, our distant descendants will all end up being called Zhang. That state of affairs would defeat the purpose of having a surname in the first place.
We should never see the Woodbead, Rummage and Jarsdel extinction repeated again!