Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Mum's the Word

The passing on of family names is a very interesting subject. The most common practice is that children inherit the surname of their father (patronymic). So Barack Obama's kids are named Malia and Natasha Obama and Kim Jong-il passed his name onto his sons Kim Jong-un, Kim Jon-chul and Kim Jong-nam. This still seems to be the most common practice even when the parents are not married and Mum has retained her birth name (probably inherited from her dad). In some instances the child is given a double-barreled surname to reflect both parents.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. The Icelandic naming convention is quite unique in that there are no surnames as we know them and sons and daughters inherit the forename of their father. It is quite common for every member of an Icelandic family to have a different 'surname'. For example, let's imagine an unmarried couple called Robert and Karen. Robert is called Petersson because he is 'Peter's son'. His father was not called Petersson. Meanwhile, Karen's surname is her father's forename followed by the suffix dottir (daughter). If her dad was called Magnus, then she's Karen Magnussdottir. Robert and Karen's son is called Terry Robertsson because he's the son of Robert. And their daughter Alice is Alice Robertsdottir. If Terry ever has a son, he'll be called 'something' Terrysson and a daughter would be called Terrysdottir. Icelandic telephone directories are alphabetised by first name rather than surname and, to reduce ambiguity, also lists people's professions.

In recent years, there's been a rise in kids taking Mum's name, especially among single parents. If my circumstances had been different I might be known as Stevyn Dawe instead of Colgan. It was thinking about this that reminded me of an entry in David Wallechinsky's and Amy Wallace's excellent Book of Lists (Canongate 2004). They catalogue a list of famous people and what they would have been called if they'd taken their mother's name.

So, for instance, William Shakespeare would have been William Arden and we'd have a Royal Arden Company. Isaac Newton would have produced Ayscough's Laws of Motion and we'd be listening to Johann Sebastian Lämmerhirt’s Brandenburgh Concertos. The capital city of the USA would be Ball DC and we'd all be making Nathansonian Slips instead of Freudian. We'd have Albert Koch's Theory of Special Relativity and the communist manifesto would have been supported by Pressburgism instead of Marxism.

In popular culture, 'Old Blue Eyes' would have been Frank Garaventi and the lead singer of the Rolling Stones would be Mick Scutts. The Scruse Five would still be mourning the loss of their youngest brother, Michael, and Sylvester Labofish would be the star of the Rocky films. One of the world's finest golfers would be Tiger Punsawad and we'd be celebrating the 200th birthday of the author of Great Expectations, Charles Barrow. Meanwhile, the creationist movement would be railing against the theory of evolution as espoused by Charles Wedgewood.

Fun isn't it? This morning I've discovered that if Stephen and Hugh had used their mother's names, their iconic comedy show would have been called A Bit of Newman and Laidlaw. And my good chum Mo McFarland just informed me that, had Mum been the word, we'd all be eating Stanley’s Cornflakes and scientists at CERN would be searching for the elusive Coghill Boson.

Have a go for yourselves and let me know what you discover.

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