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To have and to hold: The hidden meaning of last names

11 Apr
Cool surname map courtesy of National Geographic.

“Because I love him.”

This is the main reason most straight women give when they agree to take their husband’s or fiance’s last names. By that logic, the following must also be true:

  • Women who don’t take their husband’s last names don’t love their husbands; and
  • Since men don’t take their wives’ last names, men don’t love their wives.

Of course, some men DO love their wives (although one would never guess from The Lockhorns,) so clearly, that reason is a load of horsepoop. So what other possible reasons could there be for women trading in their names in exchange for a “Mrs.”?

“I want to have the same last name as my children.”

Image courtesy some lame stock image service. Please
note the wedding ring. If you spend any amount of time
working with stock art, you’ll soon notice the only
time women’s hands are pictured with wedding rings are
when the image clearly has something to do with weddings
or motherhood. Interesting, no?

This is quite easily solved by just giving your children your last name. Easy, peasy. Did you know that you can, in fact, give your children whatever last name you damn well please? There’s no law stating that one or both parents must share a last name with a child. You could name your kid “Steve Lil’Hokomoke” if you so chose, or “Belinda Cheesedoodleface,” even if your last name is Jones and your husband’s last name is Johnson. Not particularly kind, but completely legal. Say your or your husband’s last name was “Cheesedoodleface” — is a name so ripe for schoolyard-teasing really one you want to pass on?

So if last names have nothing to do with love or the law, then what gives? Power and patriarchy. Don’t believe me? Spend some time reading about family structure and patrilineality. The easiest way to explain patrilineage is that any society has to figure out a system for passing on property, how its children will be socialized, etc. Most societies have chosen patrilineality – this means that the property is passed from father to son, women and their children take on their husband’s last names, leave their families of origin to join their husband’s families and raise their kids according to the customs and traditions of the father’s family of origin.

In societies where patrilineality includes women (and often, young girls) leaving their family of origin to live with and care for their husband’s family of origin, this leads to yet-further devaluation of women and girl children – the most well-known example is probably female filicide in China and India.

Patrilineality is a big part of patriarchy – which basically means “a system run by males, not females,” wherein males are the heads of the household, have authority over women and children, and dominate the government and social and cultural systems. The United States and most countries/societies existing today are patriarchal systems, and this is the primary reason — not love, not money, not law — why women are born with their father’s last names,  trade them for their husbands’ names when they get married, and give their children the husband’s last name instead of theirs.

But before you get all panicky, readers: Just because you have your hubbie’s last name doesn’t mean you’re a Bad Person perpetrating an Evil Conspiracy. The last name gambit is just one of many manifestations of the patriarchal superstructure undergirding our everyday lives – from seemingly innocuous activities like wearing makeup and heels to more insidious things like eating disorders, rape, wage discrimination and domestic violence. We all participate in patriarchy, whether we know it, or like it, or not. The best we can do is become aware of, and make conscious choices about, our participation. We should be able to assert a modicum of control over how – and how much – we kowtow to convention, although in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to at all.

Those of you with your hubbie’s last names, how do you feel about it, and were you aware of the history of patrilineage before you got hitched? Lady readers without husbands – do you plan to change your name when you marry? What’s driving that decision? Those of you who aren’t planning to marry, or aren’t legally allowed to marry in your country, how do you approach the last name conundrum? Do you think society’s expectations are different for you, or the same? Boy readers – how do you feel about your wife, or future wife, taking your last name? Please post a comment and tell me your story!

    "Hey slut! Put on a sweater."

    21 Apr

    I spent most of my teenagerhood woefully underprepared for cold weather. Putting on twelve layers of clothes just to walk from the house to the car, then from the car to school, seemed like a whole lot of wasted effort to me, and heavy winter coats were a hassle to drag around all day.

    This tradition continued well into my college years, when people began asking me, almost daily and unfailingly in an accusatory fashion, “AREN’T YOU COLD?!!?” At first, I thought these “helpful” folks were expressing genuine concern for my well-being. Further reflection reveals that they were, in fact, merely passing judgment on me and my choice of attire.

    There are about five damn good reasons why questions of all types that begin with “aren’t” or “aren’t you” are wrong, wrong wrong:

    1. Firstly, the sentence structure is all wonky. If I remember my English lessons correctly, words like “aren’t” are to be used only as question tags, not openers. So if you want to ask the question properly, you should phrase it thusly: “You are cold, aren’t you?” which leads perfectly into the next point…
    2. “Aren’t you cold?” is a statement disguised as a question. What the person is trying to convey with the query is not gentle concern, but: “YOU ARE COLD! I DEEM IT SO!” They phrase it this way so that it’s seen as innocuous, when it’s really accusatory…
    3. …which immediately puts you, the recipient of such rudeness, on the defensive. When asked such a question, without really knowing why, you suddenly feel compelled to start explaining a behavior which needs no explanation and which the asker has no right to demand from you in the first place.
    4. They aren’t asking, they’re telling — they’re projecting the answer on you already and telling you there is something wrong with you for not being warmly dressed (code for “not wearing a burqa/sweater set/whatever is deemed appropriate female attire that is appealing but not too slutty), or whatever it is with which they’ve taken issue, and are in fact saying…
    5. “You aren’t planning on being cold/covering up those filthy exposed shoulders/Jezebellian cleavage, and I would just like to point out that you’ve no decency, and clearly there is something wrong with you.”

    I developed a number of clever responses, ranging from the innocuous, “I’m fine, thanks,” to the “What if I am? Are you going to give me your coat? NO YOU ARE NOT NOW LEAVE ME ALONE.” My favorite lie-response involved making up a story about being from Alaska, and how in Alaska, we all wear t-shirts in sub-zero degree weather. I could then easily parlay the conversation into a diatribe about how much of a sissy the asker was, and how they ought to just tough up and be more like me.

    Does this/has this happened to anyone else? What do you say when total strangers ask loaded questions like this one?

    Verbing cunnilingus: The sexy nerd’s quest

    29 Mar

    Ever since I first learned the word “cunnilingus,” I’ve been trying to verb it. We English-speakers can easily verb “fellatio,” right? It’s easy for folks to fellate, the sexually adventurous have fellated for years, and fellating is pretty common even in states where it’s illegal. But the only amusing vocabularic derivation of cunnilingus is a noun (albeit a fun one): cunnilinguist.

    Why is this, dear readers? If it can be assumed that a language’s construction tells us most of what we need to know about a culture, then is it not true that, in our culture, fellatio is an action, whereas cunnilingus is a concept? I will bet you a whole platter of cookies that the reason that there is no verb form of cunnilingus is the same reason that there are about twice as many words for “rich” as there are for “love.”

    Ponder on it, and tell me how you’d verb cunnilingus in the comments!

    Related post: The Plural of Clitoris

    Word of the day

    14 Mar

    Imported from MySpace

    Learning new words, especially slang, is always fun, so I subscribe to Urban Dictionary’s word of the day e-mail. Yep, I’m a nerd.

    Anyway, the entries for NAACP are appalling. Unlike Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary seems to let anyone write and edit entries. I should know, since I’m responsible for the gayploitation entry, and Avery is wholly responsible for this awesome, made-up phrase.

    Go ahead, check out the 22 definitions for NAACP I’ll wait. Really.

    Did you have fun? Is your mouth agape? Are you just shocked at the number of complete idiots who are using computers these days? And here we were, hoping that user-generated Web content was going to be this untameable beast of accuracy and intelligence, not just free speech. It’s not until page four of definitions that we get even a remotely accurate definition of what the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is. The preceding pages are filled with racist slurs and general drek.

    Another interesting facet of Urban Dictionary is its users ability to rate definitions. Supposedly, this might help people to distinguish useful definitions from the rest. Each entry gets either a thumbs up or down from each reader. If you check out the NAACP definitions, you’ll notice something even more appalling: the ones filled with vitriol received the most thumbs up. The lone accurate entry received a disproportionate number of thumbs down.

    Where, oh where, are our nation’s word nerds heading? Dictionaries, user-edited or not, urban or not, should be bastions of intelligent discourse, not cyber-soapboxes for crazies.

    It’s not just that the views of the people who posted definitions are racist and politically incorrect. They have a right to their opinions, and first amendment protection and all that. It doesn’t surprise me that the world is full of assholes. But what bothers me is that the overwhelming proportion of entries were racist. What happened to all the normal people? Where were they when all this was going on? Or is the anonymity provided by posting with a pseudonym with little to no accountability simply letting out the worst in everyone?

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