Why we chose a new surname when we got married
Anakin Skywalker. Bilbo Baggins. Holly Golightly. Peter Pan. Donnie Darko. Marty McFly. Lara Croft. Ellen Ripley. All iconic characters, with equally iconic names. Of course, these fictional people have characteristics that bring their name to life, but the letters and sounds used in their names also give a sense of who they are. ‘Robbie Bumbleton’ does not give the air of a miserly, mean, penny-puncher in the same way ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ does. ‘Daisy Longfoot-Smith’ could never be a cold-but-caring fashion designer in the same way ‘Edna Mode’ is. No capes.
These names were also not inherited — a writer had to come up with a name that ‘fit’ the character they had in their minds. What name would you pick for yourself if you had a blank slate?
I ask this because my wife and I recently announced a new surname. She didn’t adopt mine, and I didn’t take hers. We didn’t double barrel. We picked a word from the somewhat large selection of words out there.
Tom New and Olivia Jones became Tom and Olivia Rivers.
When we told people we were planning to do this the reaction was one of surprise. Why would you do that? Can you do that? How are you going to pick one? Again, why would you do that? Can you tell us what you have in mind? Can I suggest something?
What’s in a name?
My motto at work is ‘Naming Things is Hard’. I say it so often I was even gifted a hat with this as an inscription. It’s part of my job to name new products, rename existing ones or give names to things that seem to lack an identity. It can be very tough.
Much like a lot of branding, colour and design, it is difficult to get right but people have an immediate and strong reaction to the names of things. It’s easy to know when something feels wrong, but can be difficult to say why, or come up with better options.
Giving a name to something is important, and finding the right name is really, really hard, but worth it. The right name can make a huge difference to how quickly something is adopted and used — recent examples of ‘Karen’ and ‘woke’ were names given to things that always existed, but now had a shared shorthand and understanding of what was being referred to. For ‘Karens’ and ‘woke’ they took off, becoming memes and a means of attacking a way of thinking respectively. Bad names can also elicit negative thoughts. Mazda once made a car called the Titan Dump. A Japanese sports drink called Pocari Sweat has never taken off globally (despite being delicious) — I wonder why.
Names also have to fit. They have to represent, reflect, embody and inspire some thoughts when you hear them. The Dodge Charger car does this. Our washing Machine (a Samsung Series 5 WW11BGA046AX 11kg) does not. Would Nike ever make a pair of shoes called the ‘Bouncy Bounces’? Would Tesla ever make a ‘Model Peter’? Could you call a new kitchen sieve a ‘FalconX 42E’? Which is a better name for a sports car — the Diablo. the Interceptor or Gladiator? Why?
Like I said, naming things is hard.
A case of push and pull
I feel a sense of unease at the default expectation being on a woman to give up her name and adopt that of her husband — after all, I would feel as if giving up my name was a big decision — why should we expect a woman to do this unquestioningly? If they want to, that’s fine, and great, and if a man wants to adopt his wife’s name, there should be no stigma in this either. But how many people actually stop to consider whether or not they want to do this? I’ve only ever met one other person who changed their name after marriage, and he said he had no regrets.
Double-barrelling seems a half-way house, and a decision that surely just runs into a cul de sac sooner or later — I’ve never met someone with a triple or quadruple barrelled name, which surely is inevitable — Hortensia Addison-Bleakley-Clapton-Smith doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
If there’s sadness there about both of our names disappearing in the world, remember that any family with only daughters expects this to happen already, without then the creation of something new.
Our decision was only in part to break with tradition and remove something that is quite patriarchal. There was also a big pull towards something new.
I also love the idea of marriage being an act of creation — a new family unit, with a new name. There’s no real reason why you can’t do this. All names are made up — at some point in centuries past, surnames became necessary to tell people apart (there are 14 Toms at my company which only employs around 450 people so I can only imagine when towns and cities grew the need became real and urgent to tell them apart).
There was also the irresistible urge to simply be creative — why not make something that is truly ours? Something meaningful, thoughtful and with a very real sense of ownership over? If our name became something we chose rather than were given, it would feel extra special to us. The thought of it always had me feel extremely excited, and still does.
It took us almost a year to find ours, after many different routes were explored to find one.
What about our professions? The name ‘Smith’ was given after a trade — the family gained its identity from what one or more of them did to earn money. Olivia and Tom Marketing doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Careers change more these days too.
A free trial on Ancestry.com was fascinating for both of us, but didn’t yield any killer surnames we might use. I did get to read a letter from my Nordic ancestors after they sailed to the US back in the 1800s — about a third of them died on the journey. Thank goodness for planes.
‘Jones’ and ‘New’ also don’t combine all that well, or have the letters needed to craft something interesting. The whole ‘first letter of one with the rest of the other’ leads to some… interesting results.
So, another word.
We created a spreadsheet. Both of us in turn did some research, creating a mood board of sorts. We did a lot of combinations of words like ‘wood’ ‘north’ and ‘light’ that can be slapped on the end of other words — Northwood, Redwood, Lightwood for example. Some of the names we wrote down didn’t seem to fit. Olivia said a lot of them were ‘too cool’ or ‘too stuffy’ for us. I was sad at that first one, but maybe Thunderhammer, Galaxy or Starlight were also a bit silly. Names have to fit, and neither of us are rockstars or genius inventors.
It became a conversation we had with friends too — opening up the floor to them to see where they would take it. Most of this devolved into madness of course, and a large number seemed to involve carbohydrates — ‘Tommy Rigatoni’ and ‘Olivia Spaghetti’. When we floated that it could represent where we lived and met (Manchester), someone suggested ‘Stockport Hat Museum’ with a straight face.
Eventually we settled on ‘Rivers’.
We announced it at our Wedding Party (a big ol’ reception we had a year after our legal wedding, which was COVID-restricted to 30 people). We gave some guests an envelope each, invited them up to the front and they revealed it letter by letter. Before that moment, only Olivia and I knew what was coming. That was fun.
We then read the following out, which explains what the name means to us.
Since we made the decision to choose our own, brand new surname, many of you have been party to conversations and creative ideation.
Stockport Hat Museum
All gone. This has been an epic quest, which genuinely has taken 12 months.
Early on, both of us warmed to the idea of it somehow reflecting nature, and the great outdoors. From our hikes in Snowdonia, to the adventure we’re about to have in Canada, we spend a lot of time there, and are drawn to it.
So why Rivers?
Rivers start from humble beginnings.
Their headwaters no more than a trickle, as you follow them they grow more powerful, stronger, carving out a path in the soil, the earth, the very bedrock.
Rivers bring nourishment. To valleys, they are the centre of ecosystems, and often lie at the heart of cities. Rivers bring life.
A river is never straightforward — it twists and turns as it pushes on. Its path may not be predictable, but its continuance is. Always forwards.
Calmer stretches can give way to turbulent stretches and to rocky rapids, before giving way again to a calm but powerful current. Always forwards.
And why Rivers (not just the one)? When Olivia and I met, we’d already carved some of our own path, and lived some of our own story. After a date six years ago, those two Rivers came together — a confluence is the term for the geography nerds. But we also love and value the fact that we remain people in our own right, with our own values, hobbies, hopes and dreams, but for each other we can come together, flowing in the same direction.
They say you can never step in the same river twice. Our relationship has already changed so much, and always will.
But it will always be our river.
So we’re now Olivia and Tom Rivers. This is our new family, created today by bringing together two disparate family units to create one that is uniquely and forever ours.
So, we now have the small task of doing all the paperwork to make this real. I hear from married women that there’s quite a lot of faff involved. It will take some getting used to, no longer being ‘Tom New’, but I can honestly say I am made up that I’ve created something new with my wife, and I can’t wait for that rush of pride and excitement when I get to introduce myself in the future as Tom Rivers.