What’s in a name?

When the name’s not what you wanted

Reader Susan Clark wonders about the need for some sort of official legal process to change an immigrant’s name. She notes:

My grandfather arrived in this country in 1920 under the name Stefan Papp. I was always told he (as well as all his relatives in the United States) changed the spelling to Popp to more closely reflect the proper (Hungarian/Ruthenian) pronunciation. My recent review of Binghamton NY city directories indicates he used Papp until he became a citizen on 2 Jan 1934. … It appears that each of the Popp men changed the spelling at citizenship (though the locations differed – NY, western PA, and Los Angeles). Was any legal process even needed?

Needed, no. Done regularly, and especially then, you betcha.

First, let’s look at the law on names generally. Remember that the whole notion of full formal legal names with a given name, middle name and surname is a relatively modern concept, and it’s certainly been an evolving concept. As explained by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2010:

Before the Norman conquest, the inhabitants of the British Isles typically did not use surnames, let alone permanent names inherited from their fathers. As Anglo-American societies grew more complex, producing more contact with government officials, larger populations, and new types of legal documents, the level of sophistication in the systems with which people identified ourselves also increased. Circumstances, necessity, and time produced a set of customary practices.1

When surnames started being used in the 14th century, they were chosen almost at random based on occupation, physical attributes or the like (John Baker, Will Longnose), were generally applied only to one person, and didn’t get passed down to descendants. It wasn’t until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century that names were pretty much fixed and passed down from father to son.2

But, at common law, if you didn’t like the name you got stuck with at birth, you simply changed it by announcing to everybody else what you wanted to be called. No court proceeding was necessary.3 Until the mid-19th century in the United States, there weren’t even any laws that let the courts change somebody’s name officially. Until 1851, in Indiana, if you wanted an official record of a name change, you needed an act of the Legislature.4

Once name-change laws started to be passed, they were universally regarded as adding another method to change your name, and not doing away with the common law right to just up and announce that, from this day forward, you wanted to be Clem Kadiddlehopper instead of John Smith.5 As long as your purpose in changing your name is honest, and you aren’t trying to defraud creditors by ducking out on your bills, even today in most states the common law allows you to simply start using any other name you want. Think “the artist formerly known as…” stuff.

But, as the Indiana Supreme Court noted, the fact that you can call yourself anything you wanted doesn’t mean a modern government agency has to go along with it: “Hoosiers still may refer to themselves by any name they like. They may not, however, demand that government agencies begin using their new names without a court order. This dual structure recognizes the reality that names serve multiple purposes, both private and public.”6

Today, if you want government to change your name for things like Social Security or getting a driver’s license or any other official purpose, you will need a court order.7 And the courts will be a bit pickier than you might be. You probably can’t get a court order changing your name to a racial epithet,8 or some obscene word or phrase.9 But Santa Claus is okay, at least in Utah.10

Immigration name change

So if immigrants like Stefan Papp could use any name they wanted — and that certainly included any spelling they wanted — why would so many of Susan’s Popp relatives have changed their names on naturalization?

Simple. Because the immigration law made it so darned easy to do so. Starting with the immigration law of 190611 and lasting all the way up to today, immigrants seeking naturalization have been asked whether they wanted a name change as part of the naturalization process. If the answer was yes, it’d be done by the court as part of the naturalization.12

When Stefan Papp became a citizen, it was just so easy to get your name changed at the same time. The form presented to the judge was much like the form shown here. from 1929 (click to enlarge). Every immigrant was asked if a name change was sought; if it was, it was jotted down in the space shown by the red arrow, and the minute the judge signed the naturalization order, the name change took effect as well. And, best of all, no extra fee was required.

And good genealogical practice requires us always to consider the background context of an event including the laws, customs and history of the period.13 Think about the context here: these were and are people for whom nothing was more important than regularizing their status as Americans in full compliance with all the laws. Particularly for those from countries where having your papers in order was important, having these papers in order would be paramount.

Was it needed? No. But why would an immigrant not to do it? A new life as an American, a shiny new citizenship certificate, and the name you wanted to use in your new land, all in one fell swoop.

Such a deal…


  1. Leone v. Comm’r, Ind. Bur. of Motor Vehs., 933 N.E.2d 1244, 1251 (Ind. 2010) (citations omitted).
  2. G.S. Arnold, “Personal Names”, 15 Yale L.J. 227, 227-228 (1905).
  3. See generally In re Ross, 8 Cal. 2d 608, 609 (1937) (“The common law recognizes the right to change one’s personal name without the necessity of legal proceedings”); Smith v. United States Casualty Co., 197 N.Y. 420, 428-429 (1910) (“It is a custom for persons to bear the surnames of their parents, but it is not obligatory. A man may lawfully change his name without resort to legal proceedings, and for all purposes the name thus assumed will constitute his legal name just as much as if he had borne it from birth”).
  4. Leone v. Comm’r, Ind. Bur. of Motor Vehs., 933 N.E.2d at 1253.
  5. See e.g. Clinton v. Morrow, 220 Ark. 377, 382 (Ark. 1952) (“This statute does not destroy or modify the common law right to change one’s name and should be considered as in aid of, and supplementary to, such right”).
  6. Leone v. Comm’r, Ind. Bur. of Motor Vehs., 933 N.E.2d at 1254.
  7. The Social Security Administration says as much now on its website. Social Security Administration, “U.S. Citizen — Adult Change Name On Social Security Card,” Social Security Online (http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10513.html : accessed 11 Mar 2012).
  8. Lee v. Superior Court, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 763 (Cal. App. 1992).
  9. In re Variable, 190 P.3d 354 (N.M. Ct. App. 2008).
  10. In re Porter, 31 P.3d 519 (Utah 2001).
  11. Act of 29 June 1906, 34 Stat. 596, § 6.
  12. Today’s immigrants can only obtain a name change if naturalized by a judge, and not by an immigration officer. Since there isn’t always a judge available, it may slow down the process but they still don’t need to file a separate petition or pay another fee. See generally USCIS Form N-400, Application for Naturalization (http://www.uscis.gov/files/form/n-400.pdf : accessed 11 Mar 2012). See also 8 C.F.R. Parts 337 and 338.
  13. Board for Certification of Genealogists®, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Washington, D.C. : BCG, 2000), Standard 24 at 10.
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14 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Susan Clark says:

    Thank you a hundred times over, Judy! It’s been a challenge to understand but your contextual explanation is wonderful. Many Popps will be reviewing this today.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It was surprising to me how common the name change was in naturalization, Susan — and another reader had an ancestor whose name was changed who didn’t WANT it changed and never used the changed name!

  2. Great post. I need a lesson how to research laws in Massachusetts! I think the time frames for some of the name change laws there might be different. I could use a week long institute on all the stuff you write about.

  3. Just so we have all the references in one place…here’s the more definitive work of that same information

    It’s wonderful! All 539 pages of it! :)

  4. John Tracy Cunningham says:


    Excellent piece, as always. I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog and finding it useful. Thank you! Don’t stop!

    OK, changing name at naturalization was easy. How about at marriage? May the bride take any name? How about the groom?

    In divorce decrees, I have seen the judge allowing the woman bringing the suit to resume her former name, which was stated in the decree. I imagine this is routine.

    Here in Continental Europe, at least in some countries, given names are or were in the past chosen from government lists, surnames came from the father and/or mother, and changing a name required a court order. It’s all civil law here, of course.


    Stuttgart, Germany

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, John, and I’ll add those additional questions to the queue for a future answer. And your comment re-emphasizes, for me and for all, that civil law jurisdictions (not civil as opposed to criminal, but civil as in statutory and code-based law systems in Europe and in parts of the US like Louisiana) often have very different rules about things!

  5. Fran Taylor says:

    I changed my own name in California in 1980 by going to the DMV and filling out a form, then taking my new driver’s license to the Social Security Administration and calling my credit card companies. One credit card company insisted I need a court order but I finally convinced them. Last I took my documents to the passport office and got a new passport.

  6. Penny Byrne says:

    Your emails expand my mind in some many directions I look forward to reading and learning from them. The last one “Whats in a married name” however, hit a personal note. When I got married there was never a guestion that I would keep my name at the time it was not unusual. There was some social pressure to take my husbands name and confusion having a different name than my kids. It never seem strange for me to keep my name in fact taking someone elses name seemed strange. What surprises me that even today (I am in my 70′s )people still ask “How Come you have a different name than your husbands?” I am thinking of making copies of your article and giving it to the next person who says “How come?”. Thanks again. Penny

  7. Marian says:

    Hey Judy, just one other thing about that 1906 law: It not only made it easy for the immigrant to have their changed name made official, it served the government purpose of connecting the naturalization petitioner named B with the immigrant admitted on an arrival record as name A. If that immigrant arrived after June 29, 1906, the gov’t had to verify they were the same person and so the name change process (once confirmed) documented that connection. Great entry. – Marian

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ah! I hadn’t really thought through what the government purpose would be in making it easy to record this information! Thanks for adding that information, Marian!

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