Why are more people opting for legal name-changes than ever before?

The BBC reports that record numbers of Britons are legally changing their name by deed-poll, and speculates on the factors that account for this (escaping your past, reverting to maiden names after divorce, merging names for marriage), but they miss the big one: the fact that you can't just change what you call yourself anymore. My grandparents all had fistfulls of names -- the names they were born with, their Hebrew names, their Yiddish names, their anglicized names, their nicknames -- and their ID, papers and records use a mishmash of all of them.

I've had several passports without my middle name ("Efram") which I've never used (though I'm not embarrassed by it or anything); however all the identity documents I've received in the past decade had insisted that all my names be present and identical on every piece, thanks to the growing use of databases and the growth of the Zuckerberg doctrine that every person should have exactly one name and that name should be identical in every context.

So while Britons might earlier have gone by names of their choosing with little trouble, today, officialdom requires that what you call yourself be what the state calls you, hence all the formal name-changing.

And it looks like this could be a record year, with an estimated 58,000 people changing their name by the end of 2011 - an increase of 4,000 on the previous year. A decade ago, only 5,000 people changed their names.

Many have been inspired by celebrities or their sporting heroes. In the past few years, the UK Deed Poll Service has welcomed 15 new Wayne Rooneys into the world, five Amy Winehouses and 30 Michael Jacksons.

And nearly 200 people can now say that "Danger" is officially their middle name.

However, 300 people opted for the solid but less glamorous John Smith, which indicates that people change their names for reasons other than just fun.


  1. I changed my name legally as soon as I could, filed the name change papers on my 18th birthday. Nothing wrong with the old one, it just didn’t fit me. I’m in my 30s now, have never regretted it.

    For this reason, I quit Google+ because of their “real names” policy. It made me feel like a hypocrite, using the service when friends of mine were unable to use their chosen names. I realize that I would have fit the rules, but it basically made me feel like a bisexual hanging out with homophobes and getting by on fake privilege. Not ok.

    The ability to experiment with self definition – including using alternate names – is vital to maintaining a free and creative space. 

  2. Let us not forget that there are simply more people in the world today than there were 10 years ago.
    Almost 62 million in the UK as opposed to 59 million in 2001…but yea I get it. It’s an interesting point.

    1. Another side-effect of the growing population is that there are so many name duplications – while the examples pointed out by BoingBoing show copy-catting, perhaps some people simply choose a new new name, increasing the name diversity in the growing population

  3. There’s no law that says you need to change your name by deed poll. Just do it. Half the population change their surname when they get married and don’t go to a lawyer and pay them for the privilege. Likewise when they divorce. They just tell  the bank / DVLA / work that they have changed their name.
    As long as you are not committing fraud or some other crime, you can call yourself what you like.

  4. In Scotland you can have any number of legal names. I use one name for work and a different name for family. I have bank accounts in both names.

    1. As far as I know, it’s the same in England. You’re allowed to be known by as many names as you like as long as it’s not for fraudulent purposes, and all you have to do to get a new name is start using it. British driving licences have a field for “any other names you are known by”.
      The main situation I know of where it gets tricky is if you’re a doctor, in which case the name you practise under has to be the name you qualified under unless you jump through some hoops to get it changed. There are a few others- for instance, my university requires a deed poll/marriage certificate before they will start using your new name for official purposes, and I think it’s outright impossible to change your ID code (initials followed by a number)- I know several people who have changed their names but still have  an ID that’s their old initials.

  5. Why is that the “Zuckerberg” doctrine? Facebook doesn’t care about real names. I’ve got 3 different facebook accounts under slightly different names for testing purposes.

    It’s Google that’s been closing Google+ accounts that don’t match a real name.

    Also, I think you pissed off Zuckerberg. The Facebook login no longer works.

  6. After wishing to change my last name to my mother’s maiden name for years, I took the plunge recently and I am waiting for my court date this month, $500 lighter in pocket. That’s just the start of it: change of SS#, driver’s license, credit cards, credit reporting, passport etcetc. Yes the State makes it much harder to change one’s name and to some extent, one’s identity, but it isn’t merely that, it’s the entire layered reporting of one’s economic viability that truly cocks things up. 
    One could just begin working with a new name but at some point your factual name and purposeful name will conflict, at least in America.

  7. In the Britain I am acquainted with a boy was given two names, generally the first was, as my aunt insisted, either a saint from the Anglican calendar or a Scottish king. The second could be from the same selection as the first or the surname of someone the parents had chosen to honour. Girls were given two or three names, either saints or characters from English literature.  They used their father’s surname unless their mother had married down. Then they might hyphenate with the mother’s surname first.
    Your mates of course would call you something that commemorated a humiliation.

  8. I’d just like to give a shout-out to the recently deceased Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius von Habsburg.

  9. I did this back in the 90’s, for mostly similar reasons. I’d been writing under a nom-de-plume for some time, and enjoyed using it when making friends too. Eventually I realized that more people knew me by my assumed name than my real one; finally one day, a friend asked me “why are you signing that check with a fake name?”. A few weeks later, I was filling out the paperwork for the deed poll.

  10. My legal name is so common, so dull, so boring….that I was on the No-Fly List for a long time, ‘cuz some would-be terrorist-putz in Canada in the 1970s adopted the name before he tried to hijack a plane. 

    In my online “life” I’ve used an earlier version of the one you see above. Now Google wants me to use my “real” name? How oppressive! 

    To paraphrase the racist George Wallace, “Self-definiton today, self-definition tomorrow, whacky concocted self-defining monickers for evuh!”

  11. However, 300 people opted for the solid but less glamorous John Smith, which indicates that people change their names for reasons other than just fun.

    I suspect that an excess of fun is what drove those people to choose such a difficult-to-google name.

  12. In this day and age, where you are free to choose your online identity, there are a LOT of people who spend very little time using their given name, and much more time using whatever name they choose.  One’s parents would never think to name them “mister eyeball.”  But once they get online, the person will CHOOSE the name “mister eyeball.”  After years of thinking of oneself as “mister eyeball”, it only makes sense that one would make it official.  Right?

    Maybe the upswing in name changes has something (in part) to do with the choose-your-own-identity internet age.

  13. I read my great-grandfather’s obituary when I was younger and it freaked me out.  I was given his names..  so the obit is from like 1924, in hard German, describing how he died, talking about his infant sons (who were old men by then)…  and I got his looks..  it’s eerie.

  14. My Great Grandpa’s middle name was Ephriam!  I’ve always loved the sound of it.  Solomon Ephriam Waggoner … a name to be proud of.

    When I joined the US Air Force they made me use “Jr” although I had always used “III” (the Third) all my young life.  Seems both my Dad and I were “Junior” … his Dad had died early and my Dad had never used Junior.  I had to add the “III” as an alias. 

    We named our first son “IV” (the Fourth) to get the numbering scheme back in sync.  He’s actually proud of the suffix but, alas, he has no sons so the lineage will fade with him.

  15.  Once upon a time, your name was the spoken sounds made when someone addressed you.  Then writing was invented, and up until the 20th century, the spelling of your name didn’t matter so much (as anyone who has research their genealogy could tell you).  The sounds were the primary, the written form was just an attempt to record those sounds.  But sometime in the 20th century, most likely due to governments wanting to keep closer track of people, the spoken form and the written form switched primacy.  Now the written form of your name *is* your name — at least as far as corporations and governments are concerned — and how you pronounce it is secondary.

  16. I have been out drinking with some punk/artist friends-of-friends and heard a great story about how two of them (let’s call them “T-Shirt” and “Ham Soda”) sent out their wedding invitations, but this whole clique of good friends didn’t even know their real names, or recognize them when the invitations for (let’s say) “Tiffany Michaels and Aaron Johnson” came.  So over and over, friends were having this conversation, “Weirdest thing, did I tell you I got this wedding invitation from these people I don’t even know?”  “Oh my god, me too!  Who could it be from?”  Until finally word got back to Aaron and Tiffany what was going on, and they had to send out another round of invitations to the wedding of T-Shirt and Ham Soda.

    Which, I like to imagine, is what it says on their wedding license.

    (And, if any of you guys are reading – great story!)

  17. I’ve been using the same name since college and had no trouble with the common-law change until I got a government job. The law says I can only change my name there if I have a court order or a wedding certificate (and DOMA restricts the acceptable wedding certificates, not a small point in DC). That pollutes my health insurance, and so my doctor’s records, and so on. Plus my driver’s license now has to match everything else, and that pollutes my auto insurance and also my renter’s insurance (because those are the same company), etc,  so I’m back to the name my parents gave me on all my documents. (Imagine the fun of explaining this to the no-sense-of-humor ex-military federal background-checkers who had to deal with my real name and the name they insisted was my real name.)  This has driven me to a court-ordered name change, since the marriage thing is not on.

    Which is the long way of saying “Me, too!”

  18. This pisses me off.  I go by my middle name and always have – I share my first name with my father, so in time-honored tradition, my middle name is my name.

    Not any more.  Now, the government insists I use a different name.

    But what *really* pissed me off about this is that the DMV in Indiana, in an attempt to be “friendly”, also insists on calling everybody by their first name when they’re waiting in line.  They don’t even call out the last name at all.  So they call out a name I don’t use – and it’s useless to tell them that; the policy is set at the state level.

    I hate them all.

    1. Ugh, I totally feel your pain. My parents decided that my middle name would be my given name. Every time I go to the bank to deposit my paycheque, I get questioned about my middle name on the cheque not matching my first name on my account. Every. Single. Time. There has even been a couple of instances that the clerk has warned me that should I choose to continue to go by my middle name I risk being accused of tax evasion.  Apparently your first name is considered your legal name in Canada, which I don’t quite get seeing as how my middle name is also on my birth certificate. Shouldn’t that also be my legal name?  I could have them switched, but why should I? It’s the 21st century. Something as minor as using your middle name as your given name shouldn’t be an issue.

    2. Some doctor’s offices now do this “for patient confidentiality”. But it’s always a hassle when the nurse calls “Steve” and three people stand up.

  19. Trans person here.  Had to get a court order to have everything back to my birth certificate updated.  That was an expensive hassle, to be sure.

  20. I regret not changing my name many many years ago. I am an atheist and get confronted about my name at checkout counters constantly, “Oh what a beautiful name. I’m sure you have a great deal of faith…” etc. Ugh.

    I often use my Hebrew name or my middle name, but never my Yiddish name (Fayge), as it’s painfully old fashioned.

  21. I’ve had my name misspelled on many an official document, starting with my first school papers when my dad spelled my name wrong and didn’t correct until the fourth grade when I noticed. People like to add an extra “s” to “Kasandra” because that’s the more normal spelling. Most recently the City of Minneapolis decided to spell my name wrong on the deed to my home. Sometimes I just let it go, because I don’t care like I did with my insurance company for years. Sometimes I have to jump right on it, like with the deed to my house. But it is the same name and I’m still one of only two (I believe) in the world with my full name, so I can prove it is me. Or at least I think I can.

  22. My grandmother thought she was Flora for over 60 years.  After my grandfather died and she had to do all the legal what not with the estate, the government told her she didn’t exist. Turned out that my great grandmother decided that she didn’t like the name Catherine that much, changed her newborn’s name to Flora, then didn’t bother getting the birth certificate updated. I still don’t know how Nana went 60 odd years without ever realizing this.  There’s no way a person would be able to go that long today without running into problems.

Comments are closed.