Hyphens add dash of passion to name identity

RUTGERS (US)—Hyphens may be tiny punctuation marks, but they loom large when it comes to constructing social identity, says Rachelle Germana, a researcher at Rutgers.

Germana says her findings indicate that people use a hyphen to create a kind of continuity between their past and present selves. Her study involved a large contingent of married women, confirming earlier findings that show women with hyphenated names hold a less traditional view of gender roles within marriage than women who drop their maiden name and take their husband’s name.

She also found that marriage is only one life event that prompts an individual to embrace a hyphenated name. Birth, adoption, divorce, death, and other life transitions also figure into the equation.

One man who took part in the study, for example, added his mother’s birth name when his parents separated in order to “feel more connected” to his mother and his mother’s family. Another adopted a hyphenated name after coming out as gay. A female subject said she adopted a hyphenated name after an uncle, the last male on her mother’s side of the family, died. Another kept her birth name after she married, but added a hyphen and her husband’s name after they had a child.

Yet life changes are not the only trigger, Germana says. Sometimes the decision is made for purely practical reasons. “It’s a kind of management identity.”

In the course of her research Germana, who is a graduate student and instructor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers, says feminism came up only “peripherally” during her conversations with women, rather than as the explicit reason for their choice. Although most of the female subjects made nonconventional naming choices for themselves, she says they tended to maintain conventional naming practices for their children. “Most felt strongly that children should have the father’s surname,” she adds.

Institutional systems, including mail, doctor’s offices, credit cards, and standardized forms tended to pose problems for people with hyphenated names, Germana says. Sometimes the forms did not have enough spaces for names or did not allow the hyphen as a character. The subjects also reported that their names seemed to agitate or confuse many people.

Germana, who plans to marry in October, reflects on her personal decision to retain or alter her name. “I don’t ever think it ever occurred to me, even as a child, that I would have another name. I’m a gender scholar and a self-identified feminist, and it didn’t feel right to me,” she says. “Naming is still, I think, very much a political issue.”

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