Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's in a Name?

Kate Middleton will be known as the more-proper Princess Catherine once the nuptials are complete.

One of the more subtle differences between British and American culture is in the naming of persons.

First, there is the matter of titles.  The U.S. Constitution proscribes either the federal or state governments from granting any titles of nobility.  I became especially grateful for these somewhat overlooked constitutional provisions yesterday when, in signing up for the Oxford alumni network, I was faced with a drop-down menu under "title" that was at least four dozen words long.  Titles included everything from "sir" and "madame" up through "baron," "earl" and "count." Even "king" and "queen" were listed.  Granted, they included all military, legal (except my very American one for lawyer - Esquire, which simply and confusingly means gentleman here), religious, and foreign titles, but the British peerage system is very complex is something I have yet to work out.  (You can review a blog here for a helpful primer.)

Then there is the matter of first names.  I have been informed by those who would know that particular English first names are considered "chavvy," or associated with certain types of delinquents who plague the Tube during mid-day.  Names associated with British and other aristocracies--Anne, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Catherine, etc.--are thought more proper and accepted in genteel circles.  I'm not sure of all the names associated with the former category, but I've been told that at least the name "Shelly" would be considered on the outs.

Finally, there is the matter of what are called "double-barreled" last names.  Much to the confusion of many, I do not have a double-barreled last name.  Instead, not having a middle name, I kept my maiden name as a middle name and simply added my married name on at the end.  However, I use my middle and maiden name whenever I introduce myself, and thus get the benefits of a double-barreled last name without its downsides: doing so maintains my professional, pre-marital identity but also maintains the unity of our family name and preventing confusion for future children and genealogists.  Based on the reactions I have received, having a double-barreled last name here is considered either "posh" or a strong sign of anti-misogynistic feminism.  It is also extremely uncommon, a fact I find rather startling.  Most of my friends from undergrad and law school, many of whom have elected to be mothers and stay at home,  have kept their maiden name in one form or another.  I find it quizzical that it is little understood or used here.

As it is, with my title of "Esquire," potentially chavvy first name, and the appearance of a double-barreled last name, I am sure to confuse more traditional Brits when they look at my name - a delinquent feminist who aspires to be a man...


  1. Lovely read. The archetypal chav names I learned in England were Gemma and Kev.

  2. I thought Kate was short for Katelyn. So how did they come up with Catherine? I really enjoy all your posts.

  3. Never mind on that last comment. I guess her birth name is Catherine.