1    Feb 20111 comment

The Science of…Name Changing

If you’ve hit ‘brick walls’ in family history research you might have noticed it; if you’ve got relatives trying to make a fresh start you might have seen it too. This is, of course, name changing: the process of legally altering your first name, last name, or both, so that your official moniker is something other than what was on your birth certificate.

It’s hard to be precise on this, but it does seem that this practice is becoming increasingly common. Statistics on the topic are hard to find for many countries, but for the UK – where data is available – it looks as though many more people are changing their names than in the past.

For the past few years, name changes via deed poll have increased dramatically in the UK. In 2007, they sat at around 40,000; in 2008, that figure rose to 46,000; in 2009, to 50,000; and in 2010, supposedly, to 90,000.

Why, though, should someone want to change a name? The below lists a number of reasons for this decision – some of which make it easy to see why name-changing should be on the increase.

To Fit In
One reason people change their names is to fit in. The primary reason for this is immigration: when someone enters a country where their name sounds ‘foreign’ and is hard for locals to even pronounce, it often helps them to change it to something more local-sounding. Name changing for assimilation into another culture was very common with those immigrating to the West in the twentieth century, and remains so today.

But it’s not just cultural assimilation that makes people change their names; sometimes it’s religious assimilation instead. While not compulsory, many converts to Islam change their names as part of their adoption of the faith. This is how Cat Stevens, popular artist from the 1970s, came to change his name to Yusuf Islam.

Cat Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam for religious reasons

To Hide
People have long been changing names to escape from a past they’d rather forget. But today, this isn’t just happening to criminals and runaways and people needing protection. It’s increasingly happening to those in relatively ordinary circumstances.

The primary reason is the Internet. Any public mistakes people make are now easily retrievable, particularly if their name is distinctive. There are even suggestions that people will begin to change their names just to avoid embarrassing information on Facebook, although whether this will happen remains to be seen.

For Fun
Some people change their names just for the hell of it. It may be because of a lost bet, as was the case with Mr. Happy Adjustable Spanners. It may be for comedic reasons, such as when some individuals changed their name to Dave Gorman, in order to help Dave Gorman find 56 other Dave Gormans. Or it may be as a tribute to someone else, such as the lady who changed her name to Michael Jackson in 2009.

For Good Luck
Finally, there are some individuals who change their name simply for good luck. This is more common in some cultures than others, and not particularly common in the West. In Taiwan, however, some claim that 120,000 people change their name every year to get better luck – although often only changing one of their names instead of the whole thing.

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So those were some examples of why people might want to change their name, and at least some of these might continue to increase in the future. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to the individual to decide, but one thing’s for sure: these changes stand to add another layer of difficulty to family history research in the future.

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  1. A couple more reasons for name changes: Many times, a woman will change her name back to her maiden name after a divorce, or a couple of divorces. I have a relative who changed his surname to match his maternal grandfather's, who was something of a mentor to him.

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