Last night I was in that twilight zone between awake and asleep and I was struck with an odd idea: What would happen if everyone in the world had to choose a new family name? What if there was some kind of massive computer virus infestation that erased everyone’s names from all records, or the Earth passed through a bizarre wrinkle in the fabric of space that created a universal selective amnesia, and we all had to start from scratch? “Hi, I’m Bill . . . uh, Bill something . . . I mean, there are lots of Bills, but I’m the one who . . . hmmm . . . I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
Picking a new last name would be a novelty to most of us, since our current names were mostly just assigned to us. I bet a lot of people nowadays would think first of choosing a name with some cachet. “The name is Bond. Bill Bond.” If that’s where you want to go with it, be my guest; that’s what people in Hollywood and online do all the time.
But let’s say you wanted to reflect the historical origin of last names as identifiers. Family names are, after all, a relatively recent invention, not even a thousand years old in most places. In general, the custom of family names was adopted in different regions and at different times for pretty much the same administrative purposes: to help identify individuals in a growing population with a limited number of possible given names. And to make this easier, family names were chosen or assigned based on certain publicly-known characteristics of the person being named at the time.
Some people got a clan name, and others a name based on where they lived or what they looked like, but quite a few people (in cultures all over the world) got names based on their jobs. If Tom was the guy who hauled goods around in his cart, he became Tom Carter. If Jack was the guy who built houses, he became Jack Carpenter. If Irwin mucked out the latrines . . . well, he could be forgiven for wanting to go by Irwin Stone instead. Generally, though, these folks were so identified with their jobs that it made sense to refer to them permanently by their job titles.
Would you do that today? The novelist Max Barry wrote an entertaining dystopian satire called Jennifer Government in which people customarily adopted the names of their employers as their surnames (e.g., “John Nike” and “Violet ExxonMobil”). This reminds me of the time I nearly convinced my sister-in-law, Mrs. Meyers, to name her firstborn daughter “Bristol”. (And it would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for my meddling wife, who spoke the full name out loud.) Still, while you could have a lot of fun with the idea (“Fred E. MacFreddieMac,” “Anne Berkshire Hathaway”), I can’t see this idea being too popular, especially for people who work for BJ’s Wholesale or RotoRooter.
But what about our professions? Who would want to be identified by their profession, now and for the rest of their lives? Forget future generations; most people (except clan descendants like me) don’t leave their children accurate surnames anyway. But how many of us, if we had to choose a new last name, would pick our jobs?
Well, there’s Joe the Plumber, and maybe Rosie the Riveter. But personally I can’t imagine being “Bill Advisor”. First of all, it sounds vaguely Congressional; second, it doesn’t feel like it covers the whole me. “Bill Savant”, maybe, or “Bill Idea Hamster”. [“Bill Goofball!”, the meddling wife would say.] Back in the Middle Ages, people could conveniently be described by their jobs; publicly, at least, that’s who they were. But in our world, we have our work selves, our social selves, our online selves, our neighborhood selves — not to mention our private selves — and these may overlap, but not necessarily coincide. [In fact, that’s why we even talk about “career fulfillment” as a separate concept — because these internal divisions leave us susceptible to being fulfilled in one realm and not in others.] For most of us, being solely identified by our jobs would probably feel incomplete.
Unless you’re the best you are at what you do, in which case it would be great to be known as, say, “Mr. Basketball” or “Ms. Litigator”. Of course then everyone would want that, and it wouldn’t mean anything any more.