I asked a question about the history of names. The question text is asking about the origin of a practice of family names or surnames. There is some contention as to whether this question is on topic for the site, with user Oldcat making the claim that the question is more about history and culture, outside the scope of the language involved.

I think the question is on topic for the site. My reasoning goes like this:

  1. Proper names of English speakers are words in the English language.
  2. Etymology and the history of words' development are on topic for the site.
  3. Etymology includes the origins, form, and construction of words.
  4. Q.E.D., the etymology of names are on topic for the site.

Regarding point 1, I think the main reason for this is that because English speakers recognize them as words. Clearly, all names of people (and of all things) are a part of a language, but English names belong to the English language just as Norwegian names belong to the Norwegian language.

Regardless of whether or not names belong in a dictionary, I don't think it's stretching at all to claim that they are words belonging to a particular language (or set of languages, if they are common). You could argue that names supersede any particular language: I would expect people to call me by my given name, regardless of the language they speak (provided I could communicate my name to them in the first place). But similarly, if I were speaking to a Japanese speaker and told them my name (even if I spoke perfect Japanese), they would know it was not a Japanese name; some might even recognize it as an English name.

I would agree that questions about a specific name or a specific point in history, like "Why did Lisa overtake Mary as the most popular baby girls name in USA in 1964?", that question would primarily about culture and history and therefore off-topic about for the site. Similarly, questions about German names would be off topic (and need to be asked on a site about the German language).

However, as an example, imagine that a native English speaker (call him Bob) encountered someone named Adam Bzxphilq-Werhbarchkt. Bob would likely infer that this person's surname is a blend of two other family names by marriage. Either

  1. Adam was originally named either Bzxphilq-Werhbarchkt and married someone with the other name.
  2. This person's parents' family names were Bzxphilq and Werhbarchkt.

Bob would make this inference without any recognition of those particular names (which I just made up; any likeness to real family names is purely coincidental). I think Bob's inference is a convention of the English language above and beyond any particular name, culture or (pure) history discussion that probably has a particular origin, is worth studying, and is on topic for the site.

In other words, even if we accept that names supersede or fall outside of a particular language, the question I asked still falls under the usage of the language because the construction of a hyphenated last name has meaning to an English speaker beyond the actual names involved.

There are other questions on the site about the etymology of names (such as this and this) that an equal argument could be made against. I think this hinges on where we draw the distinction between culture and language. Words are undeniably a part of our culture as much as our language, but that doesn't stop us asking questions about e.g. the language of Baseball in USA or Cricket in Britain.

What say ye mods?

  • I will freely stipulate that the question I asked may have a very obscure or untraceable origin, but I don't think that's enough of a reason to mark it off-topic or worthy of being closed. – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 19:36
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    You do say in your question things like "history of this practice", "Which family is the first recorded...", and "when did hyphenating your name become popular across all segments of society?" You even mention the women's liberation and civil rights movements. I don't think etymology of names is necessarily off-topic - if you were asking about semantics, for example - but you do seem to be interested in historical, sociological, and cultural aspects of a practice. I think it is an interesting question, but I honestly believe you'd get better answers at history.stackexchange.com – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 19:45
  • That's a fair point, @nxx. I would be fine with the ELU question getting migrated over there, if that's what the mods decide. – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 19:47
  • I would be happy to migrate it for you. Would you like me to? – Kit Z. Fox Mod Mar 26 '14 at 19:49
  • @KitFox let's see how this meta thread plays out over a day or two. Interesting stuff in here! – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 19:54
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    Whether the etymology of names is no-topic or not, your particular example, though it involves names, is all about the history of the particular -conscious- choice by people to say things a certain way. That might be very tenuously associated with sociolinguistics, but is somewhat of a stretch. Yeah, genealogy.SE sounds more appropriate. – Mitch Mar 26 '14 at 21:14
  • Regarding your Bzxphilq-Werhbarchkt example, there is a 3rd possibility: Adam's great-great-great grandfather, around the time when spelling was becoming fossilized, decided to make his descendants' lives difficult, and spelled his locative surname with a hyphen. Members of the family who still live in Teklpasdjweistan have no trouble, because people there recognize the name as deriving from the town called Bzxphilqwerhbarchkt, but English people don't, so Adam and his wife get mail addressed to Adam Werhbarchkt and Eve Bzxphilq, even though poor Eve had nothing to do with that damned hyphen. – Marthaª Mar 27 '14 at 20:03

English proper names follow most of the same rules and customs as other English words, and they're subject to the same evolutionary forces. They’re clearly different from names in other languages: John Paul II is distinctly English whereas Ioannes Paulus II and Jan Paweł II are not. They follow English rules for inflection and combination, such that we can sensibly ask how to form plurals or possessives of English and Anglicized names (and people often do ask those questions here).

The help center notes that giving names to things is off-topic here. But I presume that's not so much because the rules for names are different, but that naming is substantially like writing advice: too complex and subjective to give authoritative answers. I don't think analyzing names should be off-topic, and I object to closing existing questions about it (unless they are close-worthy for other reasons).

All that said, I'm not sure whether the specific question about hyphenated names is on-topic, because I'm not sure whether it's an English naming custom. (But determining whether it's distinctly English is perhaps an interesting ELU question in itself).

Update: Cerberus’s excellent answer to Patrick M’s question shows that it’s more a matter of European custom than English language, and I agree with the decision to migrate it to Genealogy. If it had been a more distinctly English custom, however, I believe that it would have been equally on topic here and at Genealogy. But wishes aren’t horses.

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    I voted to reopen the questions closed by KitFox as I think it's premature to close them before the community has reached consensus on this issue. – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 22:07
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    But isn't the fact that it's about a "custom" (rather than whether or not it has anything to do with English/English names) what is relevant to whether it's on topic? – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 23:04
  • @nxx Many aspects of English usage are matters of custom (also known as style): the Oxford comma, bibliography and citation formatting, variant spellings and pronunciation – just to name a few, all of which are solidly on-topic here. I don't see how this particular styling is substantially different from those others, except possibly that it might not be distinctly English. – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 23:08
  • I see your point, but I just think we're talking about law/culture/sociology (and history thereof) here, not "style" in any linguistic sense. Maybe if the question were about whether the hyphen is essential in double-barreled names, or what it means, or when its use in this context began, but the question is about the origin and societal relevance of double-barreled names, not their presentation. – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 23:26
  • @nxx As I commented in the linked question: The part of the culture where we make up words for things is “English.” I think that's true even where the words are proper nouns. Now, I accept that some aspects of custom and language are out of scope here – we normally reject questions about etiquette, for example, although that's arguably another case of writing advice being off topic. But still I maintain that the analysis of English customs as they relate to language (including proper nouns) should be on topic here. – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 23:32
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    To be clear, I'm not against questions about names per se, just I think this particular question has as much relevance on EL&U as one about customs pertaining to surname (double-barreled or not) placement on a family crest. Out of interest, did you see the answer that this question received once it was migrated to Genealogy? I think that answer would not at all be at home on any forum about language and language usage. I would be interested to hear your thoughts. – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 23:51
  • @nxx Oh, I thought he requested migration to Genealogy & Family History because of Cerberus's answer. And yes, I agree that it was off-topic, but only because it seemed to be more a matter of European culture than English language. I should update my answer to reflect this. – Bradd Szonye Mar 27 '14 at 0:11
  • This line of reasoning matches my own (eventually, anyways; it took some convincing). My mistake was assuming that the names of people were influenced primarily by their language. As several counter-examples have made clear, culture drives name selection more strongly than language. And as this particular custom (hyphenated or blended surnames) is shared between several cultures with a common root, the question is actually too broad to be on-topic for EL&U. – Patrick M Mar 27 '14 at 20:27
  • @Patrick Agreed, although I also strongly agree with Matt: “Language and culture inform each other. They are not independent.” – Bradd Szonye Mar 27 '14 at 20:30

I agree with 2 and 3, but disagree with #1, so #4 doesn't work out for me. Proper names aren't particular to English. My surname could be English, but could just as easily be Irish or German or a corruption of some original Norwegian name.

Maybe you could skate by with something like "Why are English names usually given name followed by family name?" but even then, it's stretching it because it is asking about custom and not about English.

I agree with your suggestion that the other two questions are in the same category, so I closed them.

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    I... you... closed them? I thought they were on-topic! The Stimpson question less so than the colors question, but still... by that argument, you should probably just drive a bulldozer through the entire surname tag. What about the example I gave? I think that makes it clear that the construction is a part of the English language as much as it is the culture. If you disagree with that, then I suggest you go close all the questions about the differences between American and British English as off-topic as well. – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 19:53
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    I would have thought the Stimpson question was on-topic - it asks about etymology of a surname but potentially also covers meaning of something that might have started out as a content word (although it is clearly a low-quality question in other ways). – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 19:57
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    @Patrick, In the example you gave, I could substitute Garcia y Ramon and come up with the same conclusion, yet that is not English but Spanish. It's a different beast than BrE/AmE differences, and I agree that we should bulldoze the surname tag to prevent further confusion. – Kit Z. Fox Mod Mar 26 '14 at 19:57
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    @nxx It was close to on-topic, but would have to be worded differently, more along the lines of how the etymology of "Stimpson" relates to 'glimpse' and whether it is apparent in any modern words. – Kit Z. Fox Mod Mar 26 '14 at 20:00
  • @KitFox Thanks for your explanation. I imagine if it had followed good-question guidelines it might have looked more like that! – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 20:07
  • @KitFox regarding Garcia y Ramon, I would say that is off topic because an English speaker wouldn't recognize the construction. I recognize Garcia as a surname associated with Spain, and even knowing that y is Spanish for 'and', I don't gain any additional insight into the overall construction. I would, however, immediately recognize (perhaps wrongly) Jose Garcia-Ramon as a person whose parents chose to blend their family names. The hyphenation of a surname has a specific meaning in the English Language. – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 20:19
  • re. my last comment: But of course, if the English speaker were from a Hispanic background, they might recognize the significance of Jones y Smith without recognizing the names, and they might not recognize the significance of Garcia-Ramon. That does make it clear that the convention is primarily about culture rather than language. I think I must concede the point. Migrate away! (Time to make yet another SE account, heh.) – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 20:37
  • I strongly disagree that we should bulldoze name-related questions unless they are about giving names to things (which is explicitly off-topic). The rules and etymology of English names should be very much of interest to English language enthusiasts. – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 21:41
  • @KitFox In particular, I don't think the Stimpson question should need to ask “whether it is apparent in any modern words” to be on-topic, as Stimpson and glimpse both are modern words. – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 22:16
  • @KitFox (But apparently you and I disagree over Patrick’s premise #1.) – Bradd Szonye Mar 26 '14 at 22:23

Proper names are words in the English language.

Proper names can be anything at all and don't have follow any of the conventions of the English language. There is going to be a fuzzy line where some things are "interesting" and "on-topic" where others will not be but I don't think proper names are very relevant to understanding how the English language works.

So my internal ruling goes like this:

  • Is this question relevant to English aside from proper names?
  • If not, it is off-topic
  • If so, use the other example instead

This isn't to say that all questions about proper names are inherently off-topic but I think anything along the lines of the linked question is way off-topic for the following reasons:

  • Surnames are a cultural issue and are not standard across the English language
  • Surname particularities are family specific and, therefore, this isn't even extremely interesting within a particular dialect of English
  • Most of the content in your post is even further off-topic and ventures into opinions and strictly historical musings


However, as an example, imagine that a native English speaker (call him Bob) encountered someone named Adam Bzxphilq-Werhbarchkt. Bob would likely infer that this person's parents' family names were Bzxphilq and Werhbarchkt, without any recognition of those particular names (which I just made up; any likeness to real family names is purely coincidental). I think Bob's inference is a convention of the English language above and beyond any particular name, culture or (pure) history discussion that probably has a particular origin, is worth studying, and is on topic for the site.

To use your own example against you, your guess isn't even correct. In American culture a hyphenated surname is usually due to marriage and not parental names. But even that isn't always true since it depends on the culture of the family. Central American families tend to inherit their surnames based on gender and just stack them together instead of using middle names. Kind of. The point being that this has nothing to do with the language since they continue the practice for generations after immigrating to English speaking countries. Maybe -- it depends on the family.

  • So you are saying, if the surname is also a word that can be used in another context it is on-topic? Like, how did smith become the common last name Smith? – David M Mar 26 '14 at 20:19
  • @DavidM: Sure. Or possibly asking about the pronunciation of a particular name: Find an example in a normal word instead of a proper noun. – MrHen Mar 26 '14 at 20:22
  • I improved the example to make it clear that the meaning is: a pair of family names blended by marriage. I'm beginning to see the point that the convention is separate from the language of the speakers, though. Outlandish example: If everyone in the US started speaking Chinese tomorrow, it would be a whole different ball of wax to get everyone to put their family name before their given name. – Patrick M Mar 26 '14 at 20:31
  • @DavidM See the comments under KitFox's answer (about this question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/108134/…) – nxx Mar 26 '14 at 20:37
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    Wait... did you say "Proper names can be anything at all and don't have follow any of the conventions of the English language". I'd hope they'd follow the rules of English pronunciation. 'Mstislav is not a well-formed English name. – Mitch Mar 26 '14 at 21:10
  • @Mitch: But you can still name your kid "Mstislav". I wouldn't recommend it but people name their kids all sorts of non-English things. And let's not forget about company names. – MrHen Mar 26 '14 at 21:12
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    If you're going that way, then yes, one can do absolutely anything no matter what. But, no, you cannot name your child '!Kungshch' and have it be pronounced in the expected foreign language. – Mitch Mar 26 '14 at 21:20
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    @Mitch And, therefore, I think any such questions are off-topic. – MrHen Mar 26 '14 at 21:21

Yes. Questions about the origin of people's names are on topic, if the name is considered an English name.

By English name I don't name that it originated in England, I mean that it is a name of someone whose native language is English.

Once that is the case it becomes part of the English language, and so fair game to ask where it came from at EL&U.

So the question about the origin of colour surnames in the English language is on topic. And the question about where Stimpson comes from is on topic. And asking where hyphens in English names come from is on topic.

However, I agree that the last example is better asked at Genealogy.SE.

Language and culture inform each other. They are not independent.

As an aside, IIRC, nohat has reopened questions about the pronunciation of names in English. I don't see why the origin is less valid.

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