Friday, September 3, 2010

What's in a surname?

Hummingbird came across an interesting article titled "What's in a surname? In Europe, quite a lot" (Earth Times).  Some excerpts from the article -
Many journalists applying for accreditation to the Spanish presidency of the European Union in January faced an unusual problem: they did not have enough surnames.

Most EU citizens make do with one family name each. But Spanish and Portuguese tradition gives its people two - and the presidency accreditation website was not set up with compromise in mind.

"Error. Field missing. Please fill in: Surname 2," the website announced curtly each time a non-Hispanic journalist tried to enter his or her details on the site without the crucial second name.

The results have not been published, but anecdotal evidence from the Brussels press corps suggests that second surnames such as "None," "Mickey-Mouse" and "Don'thaveoneyouidiot" have now been carefully logged by the Spanish government's press service.
Hummingbird is from Madras where the custom of having surnames have been dropped atleast for half a century now and instead the custom of having initials commenced.  While some families have one initial (i.e., first letter of father's name), some others have two initials (first letters of grand father's name followed by father's name or place name + father's name).  Hummingbird has two initials.  He has no clue why one or two initials should be there.  Just that, if you find names with 'initials' we can safely assume that the person is mostly from the South.  Hummingbird has figured out that if a person has a series of 'initials', a safe guess is that he is from Andhra.

When Hummingbird moved out of Madras, he was thoroughly confused with first name, middle name, surname name concept of North India. First of all, Hummingbird is so 'intelligent' he cannot differentiate between a North Indian 'name' and 'surname'. So, he was happy to know the confusion between the English and French tradition in writing names mentioned in the article cited above.  Some excerpts -
Anybody who thinks that globalization is making Europe more standardized need only look at the continent's surnames.
Take French and English, for example. In English, it is standard practice to write the first name before the surname on documents such as envelopes and e-mail addresses.

In French, the reverse holds true - leaving this correspondent to collect a series of communications from French-speaking bank managers and insurance salesmen addressed to "Dear Nimmo," "Dear Nimmo Ben" and even "Dear Mr Ben."
Hummingbird's mind raced back in time.  He came to Mumbai in July 1999 and his passport expired sometime in December 2003 and had to be renewed.  Unfortunately, Hummingbird had taken his passport in Madras long back.  The form to be filled up asked for name (with initials expanded) and accordingly Hummingbird expanded his initials (Grandfather's name... Father's name... Hummingbird's name).  It became such a long name.  The biggest problem was what's the 'surname'?  Hummingbird being an 'intelligent' person wrote Grandfather's name (under first name) Father's name (middle name) and Hummingbird's name (surname).  When the renewal came, it had to be filled up the same way, said the travel agent who warned of not getting renewal if the name did not match.

The first problem came with police verification.  When the passport was first taken in Madras, a police constable came home to check and thereafter the passport came.  In Mumbai, Hummingbird 'intelligently' assumed that a similar process would be followed (see.. India is one country and passport being a Central subject, Hummingbird 'assumed' that a similar process would be followed).  Weeks went and the passport did not come.  Hummingbird again approached the travel agent who said that in Mumbai, policemen don't have time for passport verification and so we have to present ourselves before the police station so that they can verify and satisfy themselves if we are the same people who are referred to in the passport!

Hummingbird went to the police station twice but couldn't succeed.  Finally, he went early enough to be ahead in the queue and when his turn came up, the police constable refused to accept that Hummingbird did not have a surname.  All office and name proof had only 'initials' followed by Hummingbird's name but passport contained a 'long' name.  How can there be a person without surname, thundered the constable, feeling something fishy.  Any amount of explaining him that in Madras, the concept of surname is dead, was falling on deaf ears.  Finally, Hummingbird's pride was touched.  In a fit of emotion, he told the constable that if he is very particular then he can add 'Bharti' as the surname.  Ofcourse, he was remembering 'Mahakavi' Subramania Bharti, the famous nationalist poet from Tamil Nadu.  This did the trick.  The policeman was finally convinced that there could be 'species' in India who don't have 'caste name' or 'village name' as their surname.  He cleared it.

Then started the next round of waiting for the arrival of the renewed passport.  Even after more than a month when the passport did not come, the travel agent told Hummingbird to check up in Post Office.  Atlast on a Saturday, Hummingbird was in the Post Office and was told (ofcourse after waiting for an hour!) that there is no cover from the Passport Office in his name.  With sadness, Hummingbird walked away.  After going some distance, it suddenly occurred to him whether the passport had come in the 'first' name.  He again walked back to the Post Office and this time he found a cover in the 'first name' which is his 'Grandfather's name'.  Proudly Hummingbird walked out with his passport, as the Post Office had a post man from Madras, who believed Hummingbird's words.

The tension over name did not end there.  Unlike some frequent flyers who regularly go abroad, Hummingbird doesn't get opportunity to go abroad.  He had been to Montreal and Manchester in 2000.  After that it was in 2009 that he got an opportunity to go to abroad - this time he went to Finland.  When the visa came, Hummingbird was horrified - this time, his first initial ie., Grandfather's name became a 'middle' name (which is technically his father's name) and Hummingbird became his 'first' name, though so far, it was his last name.  So, as per the visa, he became 'Hummingbird.. followed by Grandfather's name and father's name.  Thus, what was till now father's name (middle name) became 'surname'! Somehow, Hummingbird went abroad and came back without problem, though till he landed in Finland, he had tension.

Hummingbird keeps pondering about what he should do now?  But the sheer fear of getting into a government office is keeping him away from attending to sorting out the name trouble he seems to be having.  Ofcourse the lesson he learnt was good enough - in the case of his daughter, he has given name as per Mumbai practise, which is first name, father's name followed by surname.  But he couldn't convince himself to give a surname which is either a caste name or village name.  He still believes in one India - though we may speak many languages.  He is a nationalist.  So he cut his own name in half.  He gave the split first half as his daughter's middle name (father's name) and the 2nd half as his daughter's surname.  Hopefully, she will not face the same troubles which Hummingbird faced.

So, the next time, someone asks - "What's in a surname", please refer them to Hummingbird.  Now coming back to the article referred to above -
But the prize for the most eye-catching surnames must surely go to the Czech Republic.
There, most women's surnames have a feminine ending, usually -a or -ova, as in tennis stars Jana Novotna and Martina Navratilova. 
But the rule also applies to foreign women - including high- profile visitors and film stars. 
Thus the Czech press refer to Angela Merkel as Angela Merkelova, Michelle Obama as Michelle Obamova, and Marilyn Monroe as Marilyn Monroeova. 
Shakespeare once asked, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. 
"Whether Mrs Rose would sound as sweet if she were called Mrs Roze, Mrs Rosiene or Mrs Roseova is up to you.
Ofcourse Shakespeare can ask "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  He is an innocent person from an old era.  In today's 'identity' era, name is everything.  If not properly given, the experience of Hummingbird is bound to be repeated.  If you still don't believe the words of Hummingbird then as a sample read about the experience of Sravanthi Challapalli!