Published in The Great North Arrow, August 2019: My Family Name

- jim Young

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;” - William Shakespeare

Last month I touched on the importance of my family name.

Family names are an interesting topic. 

In Canada and most Western cultures, children typically take on the father’s family name. Of late however, it has become more common for a child to take on a mother’s family name, particularly if she is a single mother or has chosen for whatever reason, not to adopt her husband’s family name.

In other cultures such as Cuba, children more often take on their mother’s family name. The Castro family however didn’t follow this rule or Fidel and Raúl Castro would have been known as Fidel and Raúl Ruz.

Our family name is often also referred to as our last name in Western cultures although in many parts of the world it is listed first, followed by given names.

Family names once described a man’s profession such as Baker or Smith (for a Blacksmith). Sometimes a person’s last name was a direct reference to their father and the son of John or the son of William evolved to Johnson or Williamson.

O’Brien would have been a shortening of the name “Son Of Brien” and Mac - meaning “son of” became MacDonald or McTurk.

“Ski” at the end of a Polish name also basically means “son of” and while a male child would be given the family name “Kowalski” a female child (daughter of) might be given the family name of “Kowalska”.

The prefix “Van” had a similar meaning and Ludwig Van Beethoven could be translated as “Ludwig, the son of Beethoven.”

Whatever our family name or how it was derived, we all have a family name we most associate with and with the exceptions noted above, it is most often our father’s family name.

To honour our mother’s heritage, however, it is not uncommon for a child to be given their mother’s family name as a middle name.

So a child of Margaret Chalmers and George Young might be named James Chalmers Young. (This is just an example as this was not the actual case in naming me.)

Sometimes, following the union of marriage the family names are hyphenated.

Depending on the wishes of my parents I might have been named James Chalmers or even James Chalmers-Young

The matter of the fact is we actually have several family names that we are entitled to. I have as much “Chalmers” blood flowing through me as I do “Young” blood and I am equally proud of those two family names. 

However, I also claim equal heritage to the family names of Dickson and Guest as well as Maneer, Jobbitt, Lyon and Delaney.

Going back four generations I share the blood of proud names such as Robinson, Warnica, Lyon, Brechen, Hill, Daley and a few others whose identities have been lost in time.

As an ambassador for all those families I strive to ensure I honour the reputation of those I follow and try to act in a manner that would not bring shame to any of those fine names.

Along with the blood that courses through our veins, we all carry some of the DNA of each of our ancestors and I like to think that along with that we also carry, buried somewhere deep in our subconscious memories, the knowledge and even the experiences of each of these people.

You might think that access to all that past wisdom might make each generation a little smarter than the previous one, although when we look at the actions of the younger generations who opt to participate in fads such as eating Tide iPods, it’s sometimes difficult to believe this may be true.

On the other hand it is somewhat reassuring to see other members of the younger generations performing brilliant acts of creativity in science, business and the arts.

Perhaps all this knowledge from our ancestors really is accessible to us all and it’s just a matter of whether each of us choose to access it or not.

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