Why Are So Many People Legally Changing Their Names?

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Identity

Why Are So Many People Legally Changing Their Names?

The growing number of people changing their names in the UK signals a cultural shift in the way we think about identity.
May 17, 2016, 4:50pm

Illustration by Dan Evans.

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Today could be the first day of the rest of your life. All it takes is $50 and a few clicks, and you don't have to be Eric Smellings anymore. You could be Max Power or Augustus Enzo. Fuck it, you could be Riad Mahrez if you wanted. It's never been easier to change your name by deed poll.

A deed poll, which is basically just a legal document from a single person stating an intention, is an option that an increasing number of people are taking in the UK. A record 85,000 people changed their name by deed poll last year, more than twice as many as a decade ago. But is it just ease of access that has created this boom, and what happens to the old names and old identities that are left behind? Are they, as Philip Larkin says in Maiden Name, just "lying where you left them, scattered like old lists, old programs, or a school prize, applicable to no one"?

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Louise Bowers, an officer at the UK Deed Poll Service, says there are a lot of reasons why people want to change their name. "There are couples that have gotten married and want to mesh their surnames, people who can't afford to get married but want to make a commitment, trans people, single moms who have met someone often want to change their children's names," she says. "There are religious reasons, people who want to Anglicize their name, and those who want to distance themselves or reconnect with family. Then, of course, there are some people who just want to do weird, wonderful, and wacky things with words."

Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King's College London, thinks this phenomenon is to do with people increasingly wanting to take ownership of their identity. He says that names are incredibly powerful and a crucial part of our identity. "Name changes used to be associated with the upper classes. People wanted imposing and impressive double-barreled names. Now, it's not just the privileged who think about their names in terms of status or how much they like it. People from all walks of life are doing this."

Grimes, one of many pop stars with a gender-neutral moniker

One explanation for the rise, says Thorne, is that people are more gender fluid or gender neutral, and they don't want a name that is associated with being either male or female. "You see this a lot among celebrities. You've got people like FKA Twigs, Grimes, Lorde, MIA, and even those who are much older, Antony Hegarty, for example, recently changed his name to Anohni. There's a conscious attempt to move away from fixed gendered names, and this isn't just confined to celebrities," he says. "Gender fluidity has really expanded in the last few years. People are taking control of their identities, and they are feeling empowered."

Sarah Thomson changed her name to Sar by deed poll last year. She says she never liked her name and never felt any attachment to it. "I've always had nicknames, and I felt better being called something else. Mine was a common name, and it didn't feel like it belonged to me," she explains. "I've never been conventionally feminine, and I wanted something gender neutral that would reflect who I was and make me feel more comfortable."

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Social media has allowed people like Sar to choose what they want to be called online, and it has made the transition to a new name easier. On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, you can have pseudonyms, or alternative handles, and it has allowed people to feel that they can play with their names. Even if you're just changing your Twitter handle to "Bae-vid Icke," you're reinforcing the idea that your name is not necessarily a fixed, life-long thing that has been conferred on you. "I changed my name on Facebook way before I actually changed it officially, and I think people adapted to it quite quickly because of that," says Sar.

Chrissy Hunter

For trans people who chose to identify as a different gender, changing their name is a major part of the transition. Chrissy Hunter is a gender PhD student at London Metropolitan University. She says that it's very easy to change your name by deed poll and amending all your documentation has become more straightforward over the last five years. "I've been transitioning for a long time, and I was Chris before I formally changed it to Chryssy. In fact, I've changed the spelling a few times," she says. She's currently using both Chrissy and Chryssy. "It is empowering to be called by your new name. But one of the hardest things is 'deadnaming,' which is when someone calls a trans person by his or her given name. When this happens, it gives some perspective on how important it is to have made that choice and chosen what you want to be called."

Another explanation for the increase is people anglicizing their name in order to avoid discrimination, particularly when looking for a job. A number of studies have found that there is a big bias against job applicants with foreign-sounding names. Liviu Daniel Cristescu moved from Romania to the UK in 2007 and changed his name to Alexander Daniels. "I already had a job, but I wanted a name that was easier for people to say and to spell. With my old one, I had to repeat it five times, whereas this is an easy one," he says. "We get a name, a religion, and a country you are born in, and you have no choice when you are kid. If you have the opportunity to change it, then why not?"

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There are also more tragic reasons people change their name, like domestic violence. "The amount of women we speak to in a day because of partners in prisons for violence or sexual abuse of the children is very much on the increase," says Bowers. "I'd say it's well over ten percent of the name changes we deal with."

These women often want to change their children's names, too. "Sometimes they go back to a family name, while other times they're moving areas and want a fresh start altogether," Bowers says. The office also regularly deals with prisoners who are issued new identities and individuals under witness protection, which is around 200 people per year.

The deed poll office is a weird place, though, because for every name change it deals with, that could lead to a new life or identity for someone who feels he or she has always been mislabeled or is trying to escape his or her past. There is one who wants to be called Buzz Lightyear.

Last year, Craig Aaron Moore changed his name to Bowser Ijustwannadrift Moore and Frances Rogers chose Simply Mylovepoet. Charlene Felwell, 36, who had always been known as Charlie, recently switched her name to Charlene Charlie Penelope Pitstop Colpus Crum. "My mom and my stepdad finally got married last year after twenty-four years of being together, so I wanted to take on their double barreled name. Also, I'm a very big fan of the wacky races, and that's where the Penelope Pitstop came from," she says. "I wanted it to be longer, but my boyfriend said, 'No, that's crazy.'" Interesting he drew the line there.

Elwood Jake Blues with his pal

David Cantrell has been known as Elwood Jake Blues since changing his name by deed poll last June. He's a Blues Brothers fan, and he says he went to bed one day and woke up the next morning and decided to change his name. "My partner was happy for me to do it. I've had a difficult past at times, and this was a fresh start for me and the beginning of a new chapter. I've even got it tattooed on my knuckles. I don't do things by half, and this is my thing," he says. Although his children and his ex-partner still use his original surname, he says he wishes he'd had this name from birth.

Even the sillier names signal a cultural change in the way we think about identity. Thorne says that in the US, people have always felt freer to play with and invent names. "We've often laughed at them in the past for using silly names, but it's very much becoming established in the UK, too," he says.

Laura Wattenberg, author or The Baby Name Wizard, agrees. "In the past, name trends changed slowly and the core royal classics dominated English naming. At one time, John and Mary alone accounted for a quarter of all babies born. Today's name culture is wide open, and there is greater freedom of choice. Girls today have names such as Augusta, Monet, Dhruvi, Aibhlinn, Sophie-Louise, Rainbow, Brenda, and Binky," she says. "Name trends are changing faster than in the past, which increases the chance of choosing one that will sound date-stamped in the future. Names that rise suddenly tend to fall most quickly too."

At a time when society is becoming more accepting of people shaking the identity they were allocated, name changes can be a form of escapism. If anything, the fact that we can change them so easily makes our name seem more like something we're responsible for. As Thorne says, "Names are becoming more important because we are more self-conscious about ourselves. People are no longer prepared to live with a name that has been assigned to them anymore."