Hyphens of Brown: A tale of two names


“Hello, can I make a reservation for two at 7:00, please?”
“Yes, what’s the name?”
“Kate Storey-Fisher.”
“Okay, Ms. Fisher—“
“Actually, the whole last name is ‘Storey-Fisher.’”
“Oh, sorry about that, Storey. Now—“

I’ve had many conversations that go something like the one above, and I’m sure most other people with hyphenated last names have had similar experiences. Disregarding the fact that I also have to include “and that’s Storey with an ‘e’ and Fisher with no ‘c,’” clarifications that anyone with a last name other than Smith can relate to, many people just don’t seem to grasp the idea or importance of a hyphen.

Hyphenated names are more than just quirks designed to confuse maître d’s; they represent a shift in the long-standing tradition in America and many other parts of the world of passing last names down the patriarchal line. While much change has been made in society towards gender equality, this process of naming lags behind, and hyphenated names are still rare.

Hyphens are a step in the direction of equality, but it can feel like they bring up more issues than they solve. Which parent’s name should come first? What if there is no hyphen to bubble in on a standardized test? What do I do when the name on my license is missing my hyphen and doesn’t match my plane reservation, so I can’t check in for my flight? And of course, what are people with hyphenated names to do when they have children themselves? These are just some of the struggles of being a hyphen-baby (hyphy?).

In an environment like Brown’s, many people are familiar with hyphens and understand their use. But students and professors at Brown with hyphenated names—all united by that unwieldy underscore-hyphen combination in their @brown.edu email addresses—still have their fair share of anecdotes and opinions related to their hyphens. I sent out a call to the people with hyphenated last names in the Brown community and found many who were eager to share their hyphen-stories.

My hyphen has always been a strong part of my identity and a representation of equality. My mom (the Storey) is a life-long feminist, and always intended to pass on her name to her kids. She considered her options, which included flipping a coin to decide whether I would get her name or my dad’s name, or giving me one name and my brother the other. But she thought a hyphen was the best solution, as her name went well with my dad’s (the Fisher). It took a lot of persuading, as my dad thought hyphens were clunky and difficult, but clearly my mom was very convincing.

When I was younger and people would ask me about my last name, I would simply exclaim, “My mom wanted me to have her name too!” Before I realized the depth of that decision, I loved being one of the few students with a hyphen, and would bother my teachers to no end until they never forgot to write my initials “S-F.”  Conveniently, these happen to stand for San Francisco, where I grew up. I can tell a lot about a person from how long it takes for them to exclaim, “Wait, S-F! Storey-Fisher! San Francisco! Did you realize that?!” Yes, thank you, I did, but thanks for letting me know for the gajillionth time!

Many people I talked to have a love/hate relationship with their hyphens. Ada Dolan-Zalaznick ’17 said that having a hyphenated last name is very inconvenient: “No one can spell it, no one can pronounce it, and it’s absurdly long.” But she nonetheless loves that it represents her parents equally, saying that her hyphenated name “has always reinforced equality between my mom and my dad, and I want to set a similar example for my kids.”

The idea of a hyphen is often born from a woman keeping her name upon marriage, an option that is less rare than hyphenated names but still not the norm. Isabella Kres-Nash ’18 said that her mother “does not fit into the mold of women giving up a piece of their identity, their name, when they marry,” which led to her receiving her mom’s name as well as her dad’s. Riley Ryan-Wood ’17 said, “Some people ask me if I would ever drop one of the names, which is a really bizarre question when you think about it. To me, that would be completely changing my identity.”

Seán Arrieta-Kenna ’18 feels that his hyphen acts as a link between his cultural identities. His mother is Mexican and his father is Irish, and he said that “the two names that make up my surname are a visible representation of this.” Similarly, Theo Follini-Press ’17 thinks of his hyphen-story as a story of immigration, something that resonates with many Americans. His grandfather is originally from Lithuania and fled to South Africa around WWII, where he changed his name to Press, and his mother’s side of the family came from Italy with the name Follini. Theo said that his hyphenated name “preserves the story of how my parents’ families immigrated from really different places but somehow came together.”

As hyphenated names are still relatively uncommon and there are so many possible combinations, people with hyphens are often the only ones in the world with their particular name. Claire Detrick-Jules ’17 said, “I used to hate my full name (St. Claire Glory Detrick-Jules), but I’m starting to appreciate having a unique name.” Some owners of hyphenated names find a downside to this phenomenon, however. Danaë Metaxa-Kakavouli ’15 said, “My Facebook is way too Google-searchable and awkwardly comes up at the top of search results,” so on Facebook she decided to shorten her name to “Danaë Metaxa.”

For Kei Nishimura-Gasparian ’16, the sheer length of his last name has been burdensome, clocking in at 19 characters, including the hyphen. He notes that “forms don’t have enough space to fill in my whole name so I need to make exceptions.” Talia Rueschemeyer-Bailey ’18, whose last name character count ties Kei’s at 19, says that her name is often the only one to take up two lines in performance programs. And while the SAT form now does include a bubble for the hyphen character, “Rueschemeyer-Bailey” is too long for the form, so the College Board often addressed her as “Talia Rueschemeyer-Ba.” Noah Gorden-Leander ’17 summed up this struggle: “Filling out SAT/AP bubble sheets with a 14-character last name is a bitch.”

Some people seem to feel that they have creative liberty over other people’s hyphenated names. Sam Heft-Luthy ’16 says that when people toy with his name, “For some reason, a lot of people converge independently on ‘Hefty-Lefty,’ each thinking they’re the first one to do so.” I have also been the brunt of puns, and I am now used to being greeted, “What’s the Storey, Fisher?”

One of the most common reactions that people with hyphenated names are sure to encounter is, “Wait, what are you going to do when you have kids?!” Some proceed to make this into a game of combining my name with other people’s names and laughing at how long they can make my hypothetical children’s last names. I laugh along, but this is a problem to which I have given a lot of thought but not yet come up with a great solution.

Many other hyphen-babies I talked to have also considered their options for the next round of naming if they have children. Spencer Roth-Rose ’17 has a few ideas: “Keep Roth-Rose; drop one and hyphenate the remainder with my wife’s (which would seem like a huge slight to whichever name I dropped); keep both names and hyphenate with my wife’s (making a triple name???); or create something totally new.” Though he is still concerned about what he will do, he sees his hyphen as a point of pride.

Metaxa-Kakavouli is Greek, and until recently, Greek children were only allowed to take their father’s last name. When her parents immigrated to the U.S., her mother insisted that their children’s names include hers. Danaë used to say, “If I give birth to any children they’ll obviously need to take my name for all that effort.” However, she added, “Since coming out, the possibility has become more likely that I might have children whom I (and/or my partner) don’t birth.” She doesn’t yet know how this might affect how she’ll name her kids, so she is soliciting suggestions.

While many people with hyphenated names are looking ahead to the next generation, some have already faced double-hyphen jeopardy, such as Adam Hersko-RonaTas ’18. His father’s last name is Rona-Tas, from his grandfather tacking on his nickname “Tas” to his surname “Rona.” In order to avoid dealing with two hyphens, Adam’s parents decided to slap the names together but keep the “T” capitalized. He realizes that even this solution of eliminating hyphens isn’t sustainable, however, as “children generations later [would] have dozens of names tacked to dozens more in an attempt to appease every ancestor.”

Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Studies Nathaniel Baum-Snow has dealt with this dilemma firsthand. He married a fellow hyphen-baby, but they decided that “Baum-Snow-Alipour-Assiabi would have been way too much.” He considered putting all of their initials together to create a new last name, “Basa,” but he and his wife decided that they would just return to the patriarchal line for simplicity, giving their daughter the last name “Baum-Snow.”

While all hyphen-babies have unique stories, we are all connected by our hyphens. Roth-Rose says that he feels “an instant connection to anyone else with a hyphen [in their name] too. I’ve been known to open conversations with people I’ve recently met with, ‘You’re a hyphen-baby too?!’”

There is no solution to all of the struggles we face as a consequence of having hyphens in our names. There is, however, one thing we can do at Brown in addition to simply sharing our hyphen-stories. For those of us who love our hyphens but are tired of spelling out our long and complicated email addresses, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh ’17 pointed out that you can go to the CIT and ask to change your Brown email. She claimed the address “eital@brown.edu” in addition to the original address with her full name, making it much easier to give out her email.

To my fellow hyphen-babies: keep spreading the hyphen-stories, whether you love or hate that little dash chilling in the middle of your name. And let’s get hyphy.

Image by Jason Hu ’15.

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