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Considering a (Last) Name Change.

  1. Sep 25, 2011 #1
    I'm publishing papers soon/entering grad school, and I'm considering whether or not to legally change my last name before I get into specializing.

    My last name is Wang, which is a very common Chinese last name, and in Western (and presently most) academics, mathematicians are known by their last name: "Prof. Elkies", "Euler's identity", "Cauchy integral formula", "Calabi-Yau manifolds", etc.

    The problem is that Asian last names, which tend to be very simple and extremely common, aren't intended to be addressed by their last name in a formal setting anyways. Consider Ngo Bau Chau (fundamental lemma anyone? :D), who is formally addressed as Prof. Chau, his first name. However, because I'm a US citizen rather than foreign, I'd rather not be addressed formally by my first name. And because I'm much more westernized than foreign, I'd also rather not be addressed as "Dr. Wang" or "Prof. Wang" (I picture some old chinese professor with an accent; also not to mention the wordplay involved in my last name). See the dilemma?

    Anyone have any advice? I might just slightly alter my last name by adding a syllable/suffix or something. This doesn't seem uncommon when immigrants anglicize their names for example and my family is fine with it. Any advice about altering my last name?
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 25, 2011 #2
    Well, in the US, first names are very similar and last are usually rarer, so maybe you could just change the order of your names. It would make a lot more sense than actually changing your name. If you just change the order, all you're really doing is recognizing that it in western society, it is the last name that is a surname, while it is the first that is personal. (I'm assuming first names are surnames in China...)

    You should probably consult your parents, too. I'm not them, but I would be pretty offended if my hypothetical child disowned its family.
  4. Sep 25, 2011 #3
    ^ Good suggestion but in my case, flip-flopping my first and last name would lead to more confusion than clarification. My first name is American, like "Sam" or "Dustin". So "Sam Wang" ----> "Wang Sam" is kind of weird. "Prof. Sam" wouldn't really do. This method would be more effective if my first name was also foreign.

    So far, I think the best option is "Sam Wang" ---> "Sam Wengdyn", "Sam Weyndon", "Sam Wangford", ...
    Anything less common and easy to pronounce, but not too nationality specific (I wouldn't want people to think I'm Greek or something). And it still retains my last name/family heritage. kind of.
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  5. Sep 25, 2011 #4
    "Wang Sam" does roll off the tongue easily... :tongue:

    Can you trace your family history to a Chinese town? If so, you could add that to Wang. Eg "Wang-City." Of course, you would want that town's name to be simple, so you don't end up with a really long name that no one can pronounce. This is similar to a relatively common practice in western names that include "De" which means "of". So, you could either hyphenate or use the "de" but that wouldn't make much sense as it stems from Spanish/Italian. Is there a Chinese word for "of"? What is it?

    Also, are there any other names that often used by your family? (common middle names or first names) If so, you could add them to your last name. Eg "Sam Wang-Name" where "Name" substitutes for some common name.
  6. Sep 25, 2011 #5


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    What is the reason you don't like to use your last name? Other than it obviously being the nickname of a certain body part, I don't see any problem with it.
  7. Sep 25, 2011 #6
    Did you even read his post? He only mentions its easy use in double entendres once, and that's near the end. He says it's too common and, by Chinese tradition, not intended for formal use.
  8. Sep 25, 2011 #7


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    Yes, however it sounds like he is more american or westernized than Chinese, so I'm wondering if there is a reason he puts so much emphasis on his last name.
  9. Sep 25, 2011 #8
    But emphasis on the last name is in line with westernization because, in western culture, one is known by their last name. We wants a last name that it recognizable and not shared with half of China, unlike Wong, which is, from what OP says, very common.
  10. Sep 25, 2011 #9
    I understand your concern. But, imo, it's not an important consideration ... ie., not worth worrying about.
  11. Sep 25, 2011 #10
    Snyder is a nice name.
  12. Sep 25, 2011 #11
    This could be a good idea, but I don't expect to find anything good. Maybe I can try sorting out my family tree and see what names do pop up. And if any names (even first names) stick out, I could try incorporating it.
    Hahah, yup. I couldn't describe my situation any better.

    Maybe, but it's the name that will last in the books and that I'll forever be known as throughout history (if I ever can stay in text for that long!). And if I ever get anything named after me, "Wang's theorem" is certainly not what I would want it to be, though I can't argue by that time because I'd already be dead. Certainly you've all considered this yourselves though.

    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  13. Sep 25, 2011 #12
    My advice: If you're going to change it, make it legendary.

    Professor Dragonslayer.
  14. Sep 25, 2011 #13


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    Yes, what was appropriate for village or family life does not work for very common names in a big world. (By the way I have often wondered - is there any real difference between differently written but similarly sounding names - e.g. Wang and Huang? Is Wong different again?)

    You could hyphenate your name. That way you do not forget, renounce or deny the original or origins, which in my opinion no one should nor be made to feel they should.

    Hyphenated names come when the names of two branches of a family are used.

    I put this up for brainstorming. Common origins of Western surnames are names of places, so you could use the name of a place where you lived or are associated with. Other origin is from professions, usually artisanal like Baker, Brewer, Taylor etc. Also they can be descriptive of a person, temperament or physical feature. And sometimes they are the name of a father in the -son formation. So long ago they said something about a particular person. And then it would do you no harm, especially professionally, if the combination were easily pronounceable and memorable.

    So for the first I like the sound of Washington-Wang.
    For the second Washerman-Wang.
    For the third Wilde-Wang! Or if you are tall Lang-Wang. It doesn't have to come from English.
    For the fourth Hooson-Wang.

    Examples. Only you know the things you could choose that make sense, I mean maybe you have never been near Washington, but there are a lot of possibilities and scope.
  15. Sep 25, 2011 #14
    ^ Wow, tons of great advice there! Never thought of that. I could legally change my surname to a composed hyphenated one, like "John Doe Name-Wang", and just go by "John D. Name" as my professional name, where I'm "Dr./Prof. Name".

    It depends. Occasionally, some similar sounding names have no relation, but more often than not they're related. The names diverge for a number of reasons. For example, this happened often in Chinese feudalism when regions rarely came together (think of it like divergent evolution, where species evolved apart from each other).

    Another reason could simply be a result of romanizing the name to begin with. As you translate names, some parts of the pronunciation become lost and the name eventually assumes the mistake as the original. More specifically, take the Vietnamese last name "Tran", which comes from Chen and Chan, as in the Chen Dynasty. Eventually the Vietnamese split from China and so the name slowly became Tran in the 1500 years past. And yes, Wong, Huang, and Wang are all related as a result of both I believe.
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  16. Sep 25, 2011 #15


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    Perhaps I have a different point of view on someones name. To me, a name is nearly meaningless. I don't care if your name is Wang or Sir Wang the Dragonslayer of Mars or anything in between, it's the person behind the name that matters, not the name itself. (Extreme circumstances may warrant a name change though.) So, when I ask why you put so much emphasis on what your last name is, what I mean is that I don't understand your reasons and would like to know why they matter so much to you. (to me it just seems kind of shallow to change it) IE if my last name was Smith, I wouldn't change it simply because it was common. But its your name, not mine, so you do what you want.

    What do you mean epenguin?
  17. Sep 25, 2011 #16

    The name doesn't make the person but the person makes the name. [Russian proverb]
  18. Sep 25, 2011 #17
    Beyond the identity issue that's mentioned before, Asian last names are not intended for formal use. Rather, it's the first name which is the person's "identity" more or less. Thus, the naming convention is entirely opposite of the Western naming convention, where people in history become known by their last name. It's like your name being 'John Milnor' and you're referred to as 'Professor John' in the books, and Milnor through your friends. Now take John Baez, and he too would be referred to as 'Professor John' in the books and Milnor through friends. See the confusion arising? Not only is the wrong part of your name being taken, but there's now tons of 'Professor John's, thus obscuring the purpose of names to begin with.

    And by the way, Smith takes up less than 1% of the US population's surname. In Asian countries, the common surnames can get extremely high, upwards from 5% to even 30%. Nguyen is almost 40% of all Vietnam.
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2011
  19. Sep 25, 2011 #18
    I think there may be some confusion created by the terms first name and last name. This is because of the eastern custom of addressing a person by their family name first and given name last. People in China are formally addressed by their family names.
  20. Sep 25, 2011 #19


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    I understand that Anonymous, but I think I'm asking the OP why that matters so much to him. If it's simply that it just does, then so be it.
  21. Sep 25, 2011 #20
    What do you mean, 'why do those reasons matter so much to him'? Kind of defeats the purpose of a name if it's used incorrectly... Just my opinion.
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