Growing up, we are sold an idea of what the wedding ceremony is: the big church, the white dress, the embarrassing best man speech. Now, it feels like more and more people are using that as a loose guide, rather than a strict template. As marriage is opened up to include same-sex relationships, and as people look to declare their love without religion being involved, everything is up for grabs – perhaps most significantly, the question of names: of who takes whose. Enter the era of the portmanteau name.
For a while, the portmanteau name – a hybrid of the couple’s names, creating something entirely new – was the preserve of the celebrity elite: Bennifer, Kimye, Brangelina. It was 2012 when a formalisation of this eked its way into public consciousness, with Dawn Porter becoming Dawn O’Porter after marrying Chris O’Dowd. But, even this wasn’t widely accepted at first – in an interview with Esquire in 2014, O’Dowd said that people thought it was a “silly celebrity thing”, and, writing about the decision on her website, O’Porter said that members of her family found it “ridiculous”. However, it seems they were ahead of the curve.
In a sense, it is the quintessential millennial take on the marriage tradition. After all, we are a generation that grew up inventing new names for ourselves – screen names, avatars, Twitter handles. It’s not something we’re uncomfortable with. And, while a double-barrelled name can sometimes feel like an unwieldy suffix, a portmanteau can create something unique.
We like it as not only is it a part of our previous names, but we both got a new initial, so it felt fair
Zoe Hammerstone and Holly Jenkins got a civil partnership back in 2013, but it took a while for them to decide on their new name: “In the year after we got hitched, we knew we wanted the same name but neither wanted to take or have the other take our existing names,” Zoe said. “We played around with every combination possible, including anagrams!” Eventually, Hammerstone and Jenkins became Kinstone: “We like it as not only is it a part of our previous names, but we both got a new initial, so it felt fair.” Zoe tells me reactions were positive, though at first their parents were surprised – expecting them to either double-barrel or just not bother. They eschewed tradition elsewhere in their ceremony, too: a coin-toss decided who walked down the aisle first, both made speeches, as did both Mums, and everyone got on the dance floor for the first dance, to The Kinks’ You Really Got Me. When the couple converted their civil partnership to marriage in 2015, their celebration was smaller, but they kept the ceremony as close to their anniversary as possible.
For food writer Olivia Potts and her husband, Samuel Palin, there was never a question of whether or not Olivia would take Samuel’s name. “It seems bonkers to me in 2017 that a woman would automatically take their partner's surname just because of their gender,” she said. “Sam didn't ask my father's permission to marry me, I wasn't formally given away during the ceremony; it seemed inconsistent and sexist for me to take his surname on the basis of what is essentially a misogynistic tradition, from when women were the property of the man they married.” So, Palin and Potts became Pollen (“Paloots” was briefly considered), a nod to Sam’s family ties in Manchester. Again, it was a new idea for a lot of people, but the couple introduced the new name at their ceremony – bees on the wedding stationary, honey pots as wedding favours, “Meet the Pollens” on their save-the-date cards. As Sam wrote after the fact: “A new name meant a new life started together; an equal partnership, for which we’d both willingly made a small but significant sacrifice.”
As a wedding celebrant, Holly Smith is used to working with couples who have a lot more flexibility when planning their days – brides who don’t wear white, who aren’t given away, even some who opt for a handfasting ceremony (a Celtic tradition from which we get the phrase “tying the knot”). However, around half of her couples still have the woman taking the man’s name, although it’s a discussion that is happening more and more: “A few of my couples have talked about having a portmanteau, but you have to be quite fortunate to have two that are a good match. I know a handful who’ve chosen a new name entirely, which I think is a trend we’ll see more of.” She sees this as a question of identity, but also one of privacy; a reaction to the information age. “I think there’s a bit of a shift in people wanting to have a private and public identity. I know quite a few women who are married, but keep their maiden name for work or online. I quite like the idea that online I might be one name, but in real life I’m something different. People are starting to reclaim that a bit more.”
In some ways, this new idea is in itself harking back to something lost to time. Surnames used to be almost a literal descriptor of the family – a connection to a trade, where they came from, who their parents were (as in the case of my name, Harris, patronymic from Harry... meaning my full name is Harry Son Of Harry, which isn’t true). Also, it’s not a stretch to say that some people just might not feel any connection with their given name, for a whole host of reasons. Changing it to something new, with someone new – which has only positive connotations – can be as much an act of self-care as one of patriarchal defiance.
Traditions weren’t always traditions, at some point they were just an idea. Over time, they become ingrained in our culture, and we stop questioning them and the politics behind them – we just acquiesce. Perhaps we shouldn’t be calling these breaks from tradition “non-traditional”, perhaps they’d be better described as “new-traditional” – we’re creating a ceremony that works for us, that makes sense for this generation, thinking of ideas and concepts that could be passed down and over time become less anomalous. As more people are afforded the right to get married, more people can claim ownership of it, and that can only be a good thing.