What’s in a name?: Gregory Clark examines how ancestry and names still determine social outcomes

 

By Hannah Lucas, Princeton University Press intern

son also risesEarlier this year, an Icelandic 15-year-old formally known on official documents as ‘Girl’ won the right to have her first name recognised by the authorities as Blaer. It was previously illegal for the name Blaer to be given to girls; it was restricted to use as a boy’s name. This case emphasises the ongoing regulations on first names in a number of countries, such as Germany, Sweden, China and Japan- in Germany, for instance, surnames are banned as first names. These constraints purportedly serve to protect children from distress, should their parents choose an inappropriate name. Yet how much does a name affect us as we go through life? We are assigned a first name, but our surname follows as a legacy of our family’s history. Indeed, names and the ancestral background that they evoke have ascribed social status for many years, whether this is restricting or elevating. The everyday significance of surnames and ancestry may have diminished from the historical rigid traditions of lineage, but it has not gone away, as Gregory Clark explores in The Son Also Rises. Clark uses modern Scandinavia as one of his areas of study, parallel to a diverse selection of cases, including fourteenth-century England and Qing Dynasty China.

The Son Also Rises deals with the potentialities of choice and predetermination in relation to ancestry and social mobility. As exemplified in the case of ‘Girl’, or Blaer as she is now known, modern-day Iceland – among many – impedes the choice of parents in the naming of their child, acting as a predetermining factor not dissimilar to that of a family history. Clark offers a fascinating insight into the significance of being out of control of the naming process, and how much these circumstances affect movement on the social ladder. He explores the influence of ancestors’ names and reputations on their descendants, and how long it takes to dislodge these connections, ultimately examining society’s response to whether ‘A rose / By any other name would smell as sweet’.

The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility by Gregory Clark was published last month.