Maiden Names

Hey Cecil,
I was wondering if you could give me a little history on the tradition of women giving up their maiden name and then taking the name of their husband. Who was the first culture to do this? What was the significance?

Any info would be appreciated.

Thanks, Joe

First of all, Cecil does not really spend his Saturday mornings going through threads. If you really want Cecil to answer this, try e-amiling him directly.

Onto the thread:

Typically, women in ancient up to modern societies married into a man’s extended family which is why the male’s family often paid a large dowry to “acquire” a wife. Seeing as females would often live with them man’s extended family rather than vice-versa, the practice of male-name-adoption probably arose.

Sorry, no cites, just what I happen to know off of the top of my head.

The other obvious point is that a lot of countries don’t do this. Many scandiavians and slavs keep separate names and the children can be named with the mother’s surname.

What you really need is someone who specializes in onomastics, which is the study of names. Typing onomastics into gives many replies but I’m not up to wading through them this evening.

You should also consider that not all cultures/groups have the same name structure as Westerners. In South India, my family doesn’t have last names: nobody there (at least no Hindu) does. What people usually write as their “last names” on ID and similar documentation are either A) their caste group name, or B) their grandfather’s name or place of origin.


My legal name in America is Akash Jayaprakash. “Akash” is my given name, and “Jayaprakash” is my father’s legal American last name. But in South India, my name would be “M. J. Akash.”

This is short for “Moodilagiriappa [my grandfather’s name] Jayaprakash [my dad’s name] Akash [my name].”

So when a woman marries into someone’s family, there’s really no name to take–she keeps her first name and ancestor’s initials, or else she keeps her caste name. (Like my cousin, Rashmi (given name) Reddy (caste name).

Whew! Makes “Joe Smith” or “Bob Jones” seem attractive, huh?
M. J. Akash

Just in case that was (extra) confusing:

If I named my son Snoopdog, his South Indian name would be:

Jayaprakash [grandpa] Akash [dad] Snoopdog,
shortened to:

J. A. Snoopdog.

Hmmmm…my son would also probably kill me if I named him Snoopdog.

M. J. “Snoopdog” Akash

AKASH – So please explain why you took your grandfather and father’s name and your friend took the caste name? Why not both the same? And do caste names mean something (like “Baker”) or are they just names (like “Joe”)?

Different cultures, different customs.

Women in Spain (and Spanish cultures) have never given up their name (or any other rights). In the middle ages names everywhere were not standarized so most people went by just their first name and, if further clarification was needed, any characteristic may be added like name of father, place of origin, trade, title of nobility etc.

An interesting carryover of this is that the Catholic Church still refers to its members only by first (Christian) name like “let us pray for our bishop Paul”

Once surnames or family names became standard, in Spain a person has two family names, father and mother. Generally the father’s would come first but often the mother’s will come first if the parents have any preference (for example if the father’s name is very common).

I have never understood how a modern society would have women change names upon getting married.

In China people use their family name rather than their given names and the family name always goes first and before the given names. Mao Zedong, Mao was his family name, Zedong his given name(s).
Russian and other nordic cultures do not have family names as such but a given name and then son (or daughter) of so and so. Bjornson = son of Bjorn.

I remember a case in Spain. An Icelandic woman “Brenda Bjorndaughter” had a son in Spain. In Iceland the kid would be Joe Brendason but in Spain he had to be Joe Bjorndaughter which would be huniliating in Iceland because that is a girl’s name.

It seems at that time the laws were changing and she was caught in some sort of legal limbo about this.

Anyway, that’s my trivia contribution.

Spanish surnames are not nearly so egalitarian as they seem. Check out what Cecil has to say in:

BTW, getting back to post #2, I always understood a dowry to be money a woman’s family paid to the man to compensate him for taking a daughter off their hands. At least, that’s the definition found in Webster’s New World Collegiate, Foourth Edition.

And finally, welcome to the board, joeb!

Not really. Russian names consist of a given name, a patronym (son/daughter of [father’s name]) and a family name, eg Irina Pavlovna Gorovoi.

In Iceland on other hand they don’t, as a rule, use family names, but there are exceptions, eg Haldor Kiljan Laxness. IIRC (I’m definitely not an expert on things Icelandic) such names can only be kept for two or three generations.
However, the child mentioned would never be called “Joe Brendason”. To begin with, you wouldn’t be allowed to use such foreign names as ‘Joe’ or ‘Brenda’ (I know of one exception: the world famous pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy was allowed to keep his name when he became an Icelandic citizen (instead of calling himself Valdemar Somethingson)).

On top of that he would never have a matronym as long as his father was known (I think). At least here in Sweden you can come across fanatic feminists calling themselves something like ‘Britasdotter’, which I always find very amusing as the only way a child would get a matronym instead of a patronym (I’m talking about a couple of hundred years ago, before we started using family names) was when the father was unknown, ie most often when the mother was the village whore.

Which leads me over to the fact that in Sweden we stopped using patronyms some time during the 19th century. The nobility and clergy has used family names before that, but from then on all (still with exceptions) Swedish surnames are family names, and I think that goes for Danish and Norwegian as well.