Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Como Se Llame Usted?

Back in the USA . . .

My day job took me to Southeast Asia for about ten days or so, and genealogical research or blogging were both made impossible by the intensity of the work I was doing. In Bangkok, however, I did look in the phone book for Bowies, Gineses, Sanfords, Mansons, Brayboys, and LeJays. Well, it was just an idea . . . . On the 25-hour flight back to Northern Virginia, I of course had to fill out a customs declaration form and, nearly crazy from lack of sleep, I almost wrote one of my ancestral names in the line where it says "Family Name." Then I remembered that that's not the name on my passport and imagined trying to explain the discrepancy to the customs and immigration officials. So I wrote my "real" name, i.e., my passport name, my official name, the name by which the government prefers to know me. But then I got just a tad indignant. The form says "Family Name." LeJay, Bryant, Bowie, Brayboy, McCray, Johnson, Long, Gines, Manson, Sanford, Mirabeau, Pottinger, Mulliken, Calvert, Prather . . . these are all my "family names." Why should I not be able to use any of them as I choose?

The Thing About Names

Here's the thing about names--your name is what you say it is. As the Supreme Court of Minnesota pointed out in 1979,

. . . [C]ustom has universally decreed that a man shall be known by the name of his father. But in England and the United States, at least, this custom is not legally binding; there is no law preventing a man from taking whatever name he has a fancy for, nor are there any particular formalities required to be observed on adopting a fresh surname . . . .

Application of Dengler (Minn. 1979)
287 N.W.2d 637, 639

This is the law everywhere in the United States. The Attorney General of California, for example, opined recently:

. . . one has the freedom to change one’s name and to use whatever name he or she chooses, qualified only by the proviso that the purpose not be dishonest. To change one’s name by the common law method is to exercise the freedom to unbind oneself from the given name or surname acquired through birth or prior assumption, and to identify oneself anew. . . .

Opinion of the Attorney General of California, No. 00-25, 9 June 2000.

So one's name may be anything one wants it to be. There is a catch, here, though.

. . . if a man has been known for a considerable time by the name of his father, or by a name of repute, and he changes it for another, he cannot compel others to address him or designate him by the new one.

Application of Dengler, ibid.
And in plainer language, the California Attorney General says that the freedom choose one's name "is not to unilaterally impose recognition or acceptance of the newly chosen name as an obligation incumbent upon others."

There's the difference in the answers to What's your name? and Como se llame usted?

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