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What's in a surname?
In a way, it's funny that we even have surnames at all. What if Olympians picked their own names the way we pick online usernames?
One of the things a global event like the Summer Olympics offers us is a chance to consider small differences in habits. As a matter of practice, Americans are used to putting a given name first (Sally) and a family name second (Smith). In 2020 Olympics host country Japan, the family name typically comes first (i.e., Smith Sally). This opens the door to confusion if one doesn't know whether a name has been Romanized, so there is a simple clarifying convention: Placing the family name in all-capitals. Thus, whether it's printed Sally SMITH or SMITH Sally, it remains clear which name is which.
■ In a way, it's funny that we have surnames at all. The famed Leonardo was from the town of Vinci; "da Vinci" wasn't his family name. In Iceland, one's last name only indicates the name of a parent -- Magnus's son or Jon's daughter -- and isn't shared by an extended family, which makes organizing their telephone directories a bit complicated. Many Hispanic cultures incorporate two surnames for each person. And if you're really getting down to it, European surnames from McGowan to Ferrari to Schmidt are all just local variations on "smith", all because some long-ago ancestor was the village ironsmith.
■ The computer-driven need for unique usernames has made this especially complicated. There can be only one JohnSmith, despite the tens of thousands of John Smiths out there. Mononyms like Teller and Madonna used to make people stand out, but now anyone with a presence online has to compete with everyone else to find a string of unbroken characters entirely their own. Unless you're one of the few to have a unique prosoponym, finding one can be hard enough to do even without username rules.
■ Besides, surnames can be troublesome, especially if one happens to show up in the news for the wrong reasons. Gerald Ford was merely being self-deprecating when he declared himself, "A Ford, not a Lincoln", but the Ford name alone has had its ups and downs -- including a spell associated with a notorious anti-Semite, and prior to that, as the namesake of the site of Lincoln's assassination. (It's a lot of weight to carry for a name derived from people who lived near a stream crossing.) And it's hard to avoid associations with a surname like Lee/Li, borne by probably 100 million people or more worldwide.
■ The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child includes as one of its very first articles the right to have a name from birth. Such is the power of a personal name. But perhaps we're not so far away as we think from people being known once again by names not based upon family relations, but upon what they do. This is already the way of the digital world, where people choose handles to match their working identities: Raven the Science Maven, Econo Todd, and Epi Ellie.
■ There is no perfect naming system, any more than there is a perfect voting system. Real surnames go extinct (though it's a problem with a mathematical solution, for those willing to try it), and sometimes self-chosen names outlive their usefulness (as when a journalist with a name tied to one institution goes to work for another outlet, or when deliberate anonymity outlives its professional usefulness).
■ It seems safe to forecast that the names of the future will be a lot more fluid than the names of the past. We won't all go through as many iterations as Prince, but it may not be a foregone conclusion that the athletes of the next Summer Olympics won't ask to be identified by something other than their conventional legal names. Not everyone will want to be called "Backstroke Bob" or "Marathoner Marissa", but there may be athletes like Jade Carey and Suni Lee, who share their names with others, who may end up finding value in creative onomastics.