When New Jersey writers Alice Kirby and Larry Charny decided to marry in 1988, she refused to take his name, but so did he.
With a nod to the creative world of fiction, the couple abandoned their family names and adopted a new surname. Today, they are Alice and Larry Dark. Alice, 54, is a fiction writer, and Larry, 48, is director of The Story Prize.
"When you get married, you are faced with the decision to keep your name, hyphenate or one changes to the other," said Larry Dark. "Why not come up with a new name? If you don't change your name, you defer a decision you will make when you have children. It's a nonsexist solution to have a common name."
Many women keep their maiden names as a mark of independence. Still, an overwhelming 90 percent of all brides drop their surnames, according to the Lucy Stone League, named for the woman who refused to take her husband's name in 1855.
But today, in a trend that is not new but growing, couples are constructing their own names — sometimes mixing syllables from both sides of the family and often just picking a name that has special meaning or rolls well off the tongue.
Kirby-Charny would have been a mouthful, notes Dark, who toyed with the sardonic moniker Dark Jr.
"I think we were ahead of the curve," said Dark, who liked the contrarian aspect of legally changing his name.
"We think about language and words and we kind of free associated," he said. "Charny means black or dark in Russian, and at the time there were no others in the phone book."
Dark's family initially boycotted the name, but eventually succumbed.
Today, Dark's son Asher is happy with his new family name. "He grew up with it," said his father, who added that when Asher marries, "he can do whatever he wants. Ultimately, a name is not that important."
Creating a Blended Name
Darcie Shapiro and Jeff Klein created a new name in preparation for their marriage in 2003. The New York City couple, both 28, constructed it from their fathers' and mothers' names.
Darcie's mother was born Behar and Jeff's was Rutberg. "Har" and "berg" mean mountain in Hebrew and German, respectively. They opted for a blended name — Sharlein.
Darcie Sharlein, who is studying to be a Jewish cantor, said she never assumed she would take her husband's name.
"It was important for us to have the same last name and one day our imaginary children would also have the name," she said. "It was a way we could honor both families, a symbolic way of joining them together."
"We wanted a name that meant something," said Jeff Sharlein, a social worker. "In many ways we are unconventional and our families see this as an unconventional choice."
Though they know at least six other couples who have similarly changed their names, he adds, "We are still far from the norm."
More people than ever before are looking for unique ways to express their identity, according to Pamela Redmond Satran, co-author of the "Baby Name Bible." Her dictionary documents 50,000 names from nouns or colors or even video game characters.
"Statistically, fewer and fewer people are using one of the Top 10 names," she said.
No More 'Usual Suspects'
"Everybody is looking for a name that has a lot of personal meaning," said Satran, who took her husband's name, but keeps her maiden name as a middle name. "It's the conscious power of branding and leads people to appropriate a name in a different way. You are not just stuck with and limited to the usual suspects."
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."
Avoiding Negative Associations
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."