Years ago, we saw it coming.
Hyphenated surnames, which Americans once associated with the sort of comedy in which "Oh, I say!" passes for dialogue, suddenly became common. In the last two or three decades, the double-barreled name, signifier of class-conscious pride, went democratic.
Miss Manners always recognized a strong case for husbands and wives hyphenating their surnames, and for giving children the surnames of both mother and father even if the wife had retained hers alone. Perhaps because she finds it easy to live with anachronisms, or perhaps because she finds it hard to memorize names, she did not advocate abolishing the old naming system and universally adopting the new. Instead, uncharacteristically and at the expense of standardization that makes life blessedly simple, she approved of such hyphenation as freedom of choice.
And thus -- equally uncharacteristically -- ignored the problems it would create for generations yet unborn.
At first, the problem was the discomfort, not to say hostility, that a change to so symbolic a matter always creates. Miss Manners would have thought that this reaction had passed by now, but here are excerpts from a fresh sample:
"What is happening to our world! ... For the life of me I cannot see why these young women are so adamant against using their married name. If you don't want to use your husband's name, why get married? What are they worried about? What do they feel they are giving up when doing that? ... And what of the men? Why do they go along with this crazy arrangement? And what happens when the children arrive? What do they think when they find out their mothers have different names from their fathers?"
Miss Manners has difficulty believing that the use of separate or hyphenated surnames reveals that brides are hostile to their bridegrooms, or that husbands should control their wives. Considering the number of children whose parents never marry or do not stay married, she would not count the mere discovery that parents have different names as much of a trauma.
The most often cited reason for double names is the unfairness of representing the paternal line, and not the maternal, but there are other, practical considerations.
Despite centuries of tradition, it is no less peculiar to shed a surname in adulthood and assume another. Later marriage means that ladies who have built professional reputations on one name have to begin again with another. Increasing divorce leaves identity connections that no longer reflect family connections, and makes a potentially embarrassing lack of distinction between current and past wives. Increasing remarriage leaves veteran brides with dizzying changes, creating confusion among their acquaintances and havoc in the various bureaucracies responsible for keeping track of them.
Now, however, the inevitable problem has arrived. Here it is, from a Gentle Reader who is both hyphenated and pregnant:
"My spouse and I both have compound names; mine is Ms. R.K. Morgan-Foxworth, Ph.D., and his is Dr. Scott Ralston-Jennings III. I had considered adding his surnames on to mine, but it would have read 'R.K. Morgan-Foxworth-Ralston-Jennings.' Try saying that four times fast.
"When our housekeeper answers our phone, the extended greeting makes people think they've reached a law firm.
"What is my child going to do in first grade when challenged with writing her obscenely long name? It seems cruel, but I don't want to insult either set of grandparents, who hold their hyphenated surnames so dear and are expecting to pass on their legacy to their grandchild.
"This modern age of hyphenated and compound names is truly a cruel burden that our parents couldn't have possibly foreseen and now leaves us in such a quandary that any suggestions, no matter how blunt, would be greatly received."
Here is the blunt answer: Start lopping off names. That is what law firms have to do. And don't tell Miss Manners that this is cruel to your parents because they could not possibly have foreseen the problem. They did, as Miss Manners did, and we all cruelly left you to deal with it.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am not a know-it-all and don't monopolize conversations, but I do contribute some factual knowledge in areas that interest me. Numerous times, I've heard, "How come you know so much?"
It has crossed my mind to say, "Was I supposed to get permission?" or "One who doesn't spend one's time riding one's bike in circles tends to pick up a few things." But I'm confident that Miss Manners can suggest a reply that, while not accommodating an apparently peeved attitude, might facilitate social peace.
GENTLE READER: Try "I like to listen to people who know more than I do." Miss Manners suggests following this with a pleasant smile and then a long pause.