In both first names and surnames, couples now have the freedom to "search and choose the name that really feels like you and really stands for the individual you think you are," said Satran. "It embodies values, history and image. Naming your family is not unlike naming a company."
Anyone can change their name, provided it is not done for fraudulent purposes. Movie stars have been doing it for years. A name can be changed through "common usage" or through a more formal court process. There are some limitations: no trademarks, no numbers (except at the end of a name), or naughty words or racial slurs, according to SoYouWanna.com.
Creating a new name establishes a fresh identity for a couple, and identity is central to intimacy, according to Stan Charnofsky, professor and head of the marriage therapy program at California State University, Northridge.
"It makes sense to me as an independent kind of strike out, but what is the subterranean message?" asked Charnofsky. "Some people do that to say I am not connected to my ancestors — tossing off historical legacies, but that is kind of a radical thing to do."
Some give up a name with negative associations, like the criminal who seeks an alias. Others distance themselves from rogue relatives. "I have had clients who say, 'I don't want my father's name,'" said Charnofsky. "'I hated my father.'"
Such was the case with Andrea Shalal-Esa, 43, of Westminster, Md., who was given the surname of her adopted father after she and her mother moved to the United States from Germany. When the man later turned abusive, Shalal-Esa began to imagine she would one day change her name.
In 1990, she married Mohamed Esa, a language teacher of Palestinian descent. On a romantic trip to Spain, they discovered a beautiful waterfall and Esa exclaimed in Arabic, "Shalal." His wife-to-be loved the sound.
"We were already together and talking about marriage, and I didn't want to just take his name, so I changed mine," said Shalal-Esa, a news reporter who was forced to hyphenate their names to use it as a byline.
"The German names in my family were convoluted and complicated, so I started from scratch," she said. "I didn't want to revert to my mother's maiden name because my grandfather was not a nice person either. It felt really liberating to have a new name after all that bad history."
"I know it's very new age-y," said Shalal-Esa. But her husband, a 48-year-old German professor at McDaniel College in Maryland, thinks it suits her character.
"She wanted to have a name of her own — like Virginia Wolfe," said Esa. "Andrea always had her own will and wanted to find her way. But I liked it and supported it."
Today, after 17 years of marriage, the name has solidified a sense of mutual respect. But, notes Esa, a man who speaks four languages, the grammatical construction of Shalal-Esa makes his friends and family in the Middle East laugh. It means "the waterfall of Jesus."