What’s in a Surname?

Aug 21, 2020

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”.

- William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatic poet, in Romeo and Juliet.

I am going one step ahead of Shakespeare and asking: “What’s in a surname?” The question has acquired new currency after Kamala Harris, Democratic Senator from California, after giving up her quest for Democratic Presidential candidacy in the forthcoming presidential election, was chosen by the officially confirmed Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, as his running mate for the Vic-President’s slot.

Who is Kamala Harris? She is the elder of the two daughters of an Indian naturalized citizen of USA, Shamala Gopalan with her ancestry from what was then called Madras and Donald J Harris from Jamaica. Both went to USA in quest of Ph.Ds, fell in love and got married. (After getting his doctorate, Donald did post-graduate teaching in various universities, he retired as Professor of Economics at Stanford University in 1990). Shamala was a cancer researcher and died of cancer in 2009. They begot two girls – Kamala (lotus) Devi and Maya (illusion). As they grew up, one illusion was the divorce (on Shamal’s initiative) of their parents marked by a court battle where Donald fought hard (and lost) for the custody of the two girls.

Kamala Harris

Despite the mother getting the custody, Kamala was stuck with her father’s surname Harris. Thereby hangs a larger issue – the theme of this topic-essay offered for response from readers.

It is taken for granted that on marriage the wife takes on the surname of the husband. Incidentally, Kamala married Douglas Emhoff in 2014 and this seems to have made no change in Kamal’s surname. Also, there is an old saying: Mother is a fact and father is a myth. But, there are many cases where the brides retain their family surname by sometimes taking on a compound surname. On marriage of my daughter, Primrose Monteiro, to Kevin D’Souza, she had considerable investment in her journalistic writings and she was attached to her byline. A neat solution was Monteiro-D’Sousa, easily accepted by Kevin and his family. Their son, Zach, is uncompounded “D’Souza. There were procedures like affidavits to make changes in documents like passports, ration card and voter-identity. Such procedures were avoided by my son Mohan’s spouse, Neisha, who continues with her maiden surname of ‘Lobo’. Their daughter is Maya Monteiro.

Changes in names and surnames are not uncommon if we go by notices published in newspapers about change of names/surnames.

After I progressed on drafting this article, my son forwarded to me a similar article written in a weekly column I have been writing for Edex, the supplement targeted for students and tucked in the Monday issue of the paper, The New Indian Express, which has 29 editions and my score is over 200 columns and counting. More surprising was another article in The Times of India (Circa 2009) titled “In the name of the Father” and starting with the Shakespearian line – what is in a name? – by Anuradha Varma which included many insights and facts on the subject.

Some names/surnames have professional brand value, particularly in creative fields like acting. Aishwarya Rai didn’t change her surname when she married Amithab Bacchan. So did Moon Moon Sen. Also Priya Dutt retained her father Sunil Dutt’s surname. Anuradha Varma speculates about some other names unchanged which could have been Shabana Akhtar or Hema Deol. Columnist and film producer, Pritish Nandy, has his say on the subject: “I would love my daughters to retain their surname after their marriage. It is not like buying a cow and branding it with an iron rod just to save your ownership. My daughters are independent people. They have education and histories of their own.”

In some communities compounding surnames is common. For instance, Goans are said to be notable for their long compounded surnames which is perhaps meant to trace their ancestry on both father’s and mother’s sides. The Gulf Sheiks and royalty have long compounded surnames (Sheikh Mohemmed bin Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi). One of the longest surnames that I have monitored concerns Spanish-born painter, sculptor and poet Pablo Picasso (1881-1973 ) who spent most of his adult life in France – perhaps incorporating his ancestry for generations or it might be his parent’s salute to all the saints for blessing them with a son. Get set to read: Pablo Diego Jose’ Francisco, Maria de los Remedios, Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruizi Picasso.

The subject is open to many views. What are yours? Please use the format given below to submit your response. Over to you.


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By John B Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • James Fernandes, Barkur/Chicago

    Tue, Aug 25 2020

    "Don't let the the old man in."
    Englebert... In YouTube.
    You can keep old age out.
    You will. Because you have no malice to anyone.
    No autoimmunity will affect those....who.....

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Tue, Aug 25 2020

    James Fernandes: Apart from forgetting to thank you, I forgot to cite your name. Age is catching up - 82+.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Tue, Aug 25 2020

    It is a refreshingly different and welcome compliment. It made my day. Let us sail together. Did I forget to thank you?

  • James Fernandes, Barkur/Chicago

    Mon, Aug 24 2020

    Your uncanny ability to keep the discussion alive is tempting to expose my limited uninformed tit bit.. Thank you for acknowledgements..You make others open up rather than shut up.. .. Good going.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Mon, Aug 24 2020

    James Fernandes: It may be an old joke; but new to me. I enjoyed it – Thank you. As for laughter exercises, Corona put a stop to them. You can try Google – “Laughter Club – Bondel” or key in “John B. Monteiro”. You can access a video.
    Vincent D’Sa: Under your formula one has to produce two kids and have the first kid waiting for its surname till the second one comes along. What if the second child does not materialize? Or attach no surname as Vincent says.
    Dr. Urban D’Souza: Your double-barrel surname idea is novel but feasible.
    I was expecting someone to bring up surnaming under matrilineal system under which women are bosses – found in Kerala and Nulu Nadu (Bunts - Aliyasantana

  • Dr Urban DSouza, Udyavara/Malaysia

    Mon, Aug 24 2020

    Dear Mr Vincent
    Parents with one child then no need to attach either parents surname!!!

    Is it necessary to follow the surname? All were created by man right. This kind of divide has brought in a mentality of superiority or inferiority among the growing kids and adults. If you use higher level family's surname - you are great? When our ancestry is Hindu before Portuguese entry, do we know which Surname of our original ancestral of people we belong?
    In the name of these, already society and Indian's are divided, now let the parents also divide their children by using two surnames!!!

  • Vincent Dsa, Dubai/Manipal

    Mon, Aug 24 2020

    Good to read your article. I personally feel that there is no need to change the surname after marriage. Additionally couples having two children one child should carry fathers surname, the other should have mothers.

  • James Fernandes, Barkur/Chicago

    Mon, Aug 24 2020

    It was an old joke, John. What's it?
    The man has it. Uses it always.
    The woman gets it, the day she gets married.
    The Pope has it, never uses it. As you say at shraddhanjali.
    I remember your article about laughter exercises.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Sun, Aug 23 2020

    Gilbert Menazes: Your view that surname expresses gratitude for their parents for giving them their unique name (Gilbert in your case) is a refreshingly new angle.
    Mohan Prabhu: Welcome back to Daiji as I recall for many years you have been a regular in the comments section.
    Your reference to succession and property is very relevant. While I am aware of many Mangalorean Catholics sport Goan-related surnames (like you) 100%, first name use (also like you) is rare. Present day naming like Mohan (as in your case) has nothing to do with Goan ancestry. My son is named Mohan for a different reason. It means love, lovable…
    James Fernandes: Thank you for your reminding an overlooked angle about Popes. The surname surfaces when a Pope is elected and in his Shraddanjali.

  • James Fernandes, Barkur/Chicago

    Sat, Aug 22 2020

    Even though the Pope has it; He never uses it.

  • Mohan Prabhu,, Mangalore (Kankanady)/Ottawa, Canada

    Sat, Aug 22 2020

    Your short and crisp article was a good read and I enjoyed it but it only skirted the issue of why people retain their old name or change to upon marriage. In fact I remember a husband in a few cases, for some good reason, I believe which have to do with succession to property or title, has changed his surname to his wife’s.
    Sons and unmarried daughters in most cases retain their father’s surname so as not to complicate the genealogical tree.
    Though not uncommon, people change their surnames for good reason, especially when those names were changed by the Portuguese upon converting Hindus and Muslims as they wanted a complete breakaway from the old beliefs of converts. Many converts retained their Hindu (or caste) surnames adding them to the new imposed surnames of their sponsors.
    The ancestors of my great great grandfather (1770- ca. 1840) for instance, and many settlers from Goa in Mangalore, e.g. Coelhos, Saldanhas, etc. used the double-barreled surname. On tracing my genealogy going back to 1770 I noted that the descendants of my g.g. grandfather dropped the “retained” surname. Perhaps it was I was among the first few in seventy years to have reverted to the old name and dropped the Portuguese name altogether, although with the exception of my younger brother (now deceased), my two older brothers did not. I changed the surname for good reasons which I will not elaborate here, but would like to point out even clergymen – Jesuits who were attached to the St. Aloysius College – also did that as you surely would know. Many documents issued in the old names could not be changed but new documents would be issued in the new names.
    Sometimes I am amused to hear names of some Hindus and Sikhs in Canada who have changed their first names to Christian names but not their surnames. In my case, I made a clean breast of it all seventy years ago by changing both first and last names; and when I got married 56 years ago my wife who had a Portuguese surname (D’Souza) made no issue of it, and decided to use my surname – and our three grown-up children knew nothing about it until we told them. ~

  • Gilbert Menezes, Moodubelle / Melbourne

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Thank you, Mr. Monteiro, for the article. Before or immediately after our birth parents do the privilege of giving us a unique name, and when that unique name repeated thousands of times due to its celebrity status, their surname (Parent's name?) echoes next their name! If Kamala wasn't chosen to be Democratic US Vice presidential candidate, we wouldn't have known how her surname Harris stuck to her! So I believe the Surname of any person is their gratitude for their parents for naming them their unique name and it is said, "People who really love their names usually love their parents deeply."

  • Anthony, Mangalore

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    In Latin America it is very common one will find almost every one having two surnames.

  • John, Mangalore

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Finally we become children of God The Father, those who want to follow Him or His Divine traits as Loving, Caring, Sharing... Or

    One more option available with hatred, pride, lust, anger, self love, greed, addictions, attachments (including attachments to surnames)... To become children of Devil or Father of lies.

    Options open to all to choose!

    (Also it is possible with repentance to change the Fathers, bad to Good by practicing charity, change of lifestyle, confessions etc..)

    Also above implies it gives temporary status to our parents as parents. As we make choices they also had to make above choices for their permanent father in Heaven or Father of lies (Satan) in hell!. Surely most of them are in heaven because of their hard life on earth and prayers of their children on earth.

    Hope more will pray for their parents souls if some are still in Purgatory.
    A Purification place before heaven, because nothing impure reaches Heaven. By remembering our / their lovely parents during daily prayers! Or Remember them in prayers even if they are in Heaven as a gratitude towards them and keeping alive spiritual relationship.

  • Prescilla Fernandes, Mangalore

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Monteiro Sir, it is good to read your articles on various subjects once in a fortnight. I also changed my surname after marriage.

    My two sisters did not change their surname. Now I realize that I should not have changed my surname. In the process of getting a surviving legal heirs certificate of my father now deceased, I am referred to as Presscilla Pinto alias Prescilla Fernandes whereas my sisters are referred to as Benedicta Pinto and Edwina Pinto. There are some advantages in keeping father’s surname or husband’s surname. After all, we are " Advantage human beings"

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Dr. Urban DSouza: Thank you for the correction which readers will hopefully take on board. I regret the error.
    Roshan, Mangalore: Thank you for your apt explanation.
    Mangalorian: Very interesting information to carry the debate further.

  • Mangalurian, Mangaluru

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Yet another interesting article from you, Mr Monteiro. Thank you.

    The use of a surname was, I am sure, a simple matter in the past. Now, with multiple divorces, a woman could have children carrying different surnames.

    I could not help noticing a small matter mentioned by you: "It is taken for granted that on marriage the wife takes on the surname of the husband".

    "It is taken for granted" in some parts of the world. But among the Arabs of the Peninsula, a wife never gets her husband's surname. She always carries her father's surname. So Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan's wife is 'Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi'.

    A few days ago, due to the blast at the Beirut port, a Lebanese woman died. The English article said "Clodette Halabi died". Husband's surname is Halabi. But the Arabic article said "Clodette Yoohanna Sa’adah died". The woman's father is obviously Yoohanna Sa’adah (John Sa’adah).

    Talking of surnames, it is interesting to note that among the Arabs a child always carries the father's name as part of their name. E.g. Mo bin Zak (Mo Zak's son), or Mae bint Zak (Mae Zak's daughter). Only one person seems not to follow this rule: 'Isa bin Maryam (Jesus son of Mary). Jesus does not carry his father's surname.

  • Rohan, Mangalore

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Dear Sir.,
    That's exactly the reason I reply with Rohan, Mangalore. I prefer my content speak rather than my surname or my educational qualification. Getting unnoticed and making a fair point, also getting a honest response as an early bird here and still being anonymous gives a lot of satisfaction.
    Thank you for stimulating our thoughts...

  • Dr Urban DSouza, Udyavara/Malaysia

    Fri, Aug 21 2020

    Nice article
    Mr Monteiro, for your kind information Aishwarya Rai married to Amithab Bacchan's son.

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