What’s in a surname?


Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.

A few weeks ago, my family and I had a big discussion about surnames.  Our surname is Cvjetićanin, and it’s a beautiful surname when it’s pronounced correctly.  When it’s not, though, it becomes a horribly throaty, disjointed sound which has no relation whatsoever to its noble* Balkan origins.  The correct pronunciation is something like “Tsvee-air-TEE-cha-nin”, but inevitably, when spoken by non-Slavic people, it comes out as “Kv-jetty-kenin” or “K-v-djeh.. k-v-djeh… sorry, how do you say that?”

Living, working and studying in Australia, we come up against these incorrect pronunciations almost daily.  But the issue is about more than mere pronunciation.  It’s about respect and acceptance, and about not feeling like an outsider every time someone sees or hears your name.  Happily, I think that Australia is becoming a more and more accepting, multicultural society, and these days, diversity is celebrated more than it is condemned.  The popularity of Canberra’s Multicultural Festival attests to this.  But it wasn’t so long ago that people were discriminated against for differences of the sort.  When we arrived in Australia twenty years ago, my parents, Vesna and Miloš, were almost converted into Vanessa and Michael in one of their earliest social meetings.  I’m proud to be able to say that they insisted on Vesna and Miloš, but I can understand why other migrants at the time decided to change their names.

Still, the topic remains a disputed one.  For me, it’s kinda easy, I suppose.  I love our surname, but at the same time, I won’t necessarily have it for the rest of my life.  I plan on changing it to my husband’s when (if) I marry, and unless I marry an unrelated Cvjetićanin, it’s problem** solved.  For my brother, it’s a little different.  He keeps it for life; keeps enduring mispronunciations and suffering possible subconscious discrimination as a result of it for as long as he lives.  Plus, he passes it on to his wife and children.  But here, another question arises.  Today, less and less women are taking on their husbands’ surnames when they marry.  Women have their own careers and reputations and have worked hard to build their name up in the community, and I can understand why certain women would want to keep them.  Add a difficult surname like Cvjetićanin to the mix, and if you’re marrying my brother in an English-speaking country like Australia, you’ve got one less reason to adopt his surname.  (I wouldn’t respect that, but that’s another complicated, in my case internally-inconsistent issue for another post…  For a contemporary young feminist view on changing names at marriage, see this excellent article by Sonya Krzywoszyja at lip magazine.)

When we were discussing this issue, several different ideas came up.  Removing the “j” was one suggestion.  As one family member commented***, the pronunciation doesn’t change too much, but “Cvetićanin” is a lot easier to decipher than “Cvjetićanin”.  To that, another member responded that it doesn’t just remove a letter; it removes part of our heritage.  The “j” indicates that we’re from the Kordun region of Croatia, which is where my Serbian grandparents grew up.  That region has a specific culture and history, and taking out that “j” is kind of like denying a bit part of our family’s past.

Next, another member noted how my maternal grandmother changed even her first name, the Hungarian “Erzsébet”, to the Serbian “Jelisaveta”, when she started high school in our hometown of Sombor in Serbia (then Yugoslavia).  Hungarians were the minority and I guess she just wanted to fit in more.  As that member reminded us, she was no less my mum’s mother, or our grandmother, for having done so.  Then again, as another responded, how would an outsider then know about her Hungarian origins?  In all the records, she had turned into a Serbian woman, and unless you knew her personally, you’d have no idea.  Obviously that wouldn’t happen to us by changing it our last name to “Cvetićanin” – that’s definitely not an Anglo surname – but exaggerate the situation – change it to “Carter” or “Cavendish” instead – and it’s hard to see the difference.

This point led another member to remark that, in this day and age, why should we change to our socio-racial environments?  Why shouldn’t it be the other way around?  In this time of the increasing celebration of multiculturalism, shouldn’t we be emphasising difference rather than trying to suppress it?

A final consideration was the way in which having a surname that was so different from those around us helped my brother and I get through childhood.  That sounds weird, I know, and believe me, we definitely were the victims of a little schoolyard teasing growing up, but on the whole, having that experience really made us stronger, I think.  We were forced to stand up and be proud of our difference, to bring multiculturalism into our classes, and to represent the histories and stories of our ancestry without even being aware of it.  And today, we’re stronger for it.  Plus, if we’ve already gone this far, why stop now?  Why give up the surname fight if we’ve already been through the worst of it at primary school?  Why give in to the assimilation temptation?

All I know is that I’m not changing my surname.  Not while I’m unmarried, at least.  To tell you the truth, part of me wants to hold onto my surname even when I get married, but my love of the institution and customs of marriage will probably mean that I’ll change it anyway.  (I’m SO internally-consistent on this topic.)  Curiously, in recognition of my own experiences of having a different surname, and of my hope that my brother’s future wife will take on our surname, I almost want to marry a man with a really complicated surname.  You know, just to show that I’m not copping out of it.  But I guess we’ll see how that goes.

For now, I’m a Cvjetićanin and I’m holding tight.  No missing “j”s, no slight alterations, and no concessions.  My friends have learnt to pronounce it correctly, and in time, I have faith that everyone else will, too.


* Yep, noble.  Did I forget to mention that we’re royalty?

** For want of a better word.

*** I’m not naming names on purpose; it’s a personal topic and I don’t want to publish anyone’s ideas online if they don’t want that.  :))



  1. Hi, loved your text, just a little correction. Your grandmother’s hungarian name is written “Erzsébet”.

    • Thanks so much! I guess we all engage in a little unconscious assimilation from time to time… I never got the chance to learn Hungarian as my mum only speaks Serbian and English and I only ever speak Serbian to my Hungarian-speaking relatives, so I spelled it the Serbian (phonetic) way! Eheh.

  2. I randomly ran across this and I enjoyed reading it. In Colombia children take their father’s first last name and then their mother’s first last name so we have two last names. Living in the US I’ve run into a number of issues because of it. At the bank they thought Fernandez was my middle name (I don’t have a middle name) so my card says Sebastian F. Giraldo. Because of it I couldn’t do self check-in at the airport.
    When I became a US citizen I had the option of dropping Giraldo but it felt like it would be dropping my mom from my identity (basically impossible). The cool thing is that it gives me the chance to expose the people around me to a different tradition and a different culture. I just have to keep in mind that it will present some challenges from time to time. So please don’t get too upset when the rest of us mess up your name! 😀

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