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In a bid to promote equality, and bringing it more into line with other European countries, a proposed new law in Belgium would automatically assign a baby the surnames of both the father and the mother (in that order) instead of only the surname of the father. However, the parents may also choose to give the child the surname of either of the parents, or to have the mother’s surname precede that of the father.

Commentators have immediately jumped onto the possible comic consequences of this new law, especially in terms of administrative problems.  Were the blue blooded Charles Josephus de Brouchoven de Bergeyck and Louise d’Oultremont de Wégimont er de Warfusé to produce a child, its resultant 57-letter surname would be a tight fit on any credit-card sized driving licence or identity card. And, thinking on a generation, not only could a child of two parents with double-barrelled names end up with a quadruple-barrelled name, the parents would have the choice of 16 surnames to give each child.  So, if Jan Braun-Jansen were to produce a child with Marianne de Boer-de Wit, then they could choose any one of these surnames for their children:

  • Braun
  • Jansen
  • de Boer
  • de Wit
  • Braun-Jansen
  • de Boer-de Wit
  • Braun-de Boer
  • Braun-de Wit
  • Jansen-de Boer
  • Jansen-de Wit
  • Braun-de Boer
  • Braun-de Wit
  • de Boer-Jansen
  • de Boer-Braun
  • Braun-Jansen-de Boer-de Wit
  • de Wit-de-Boer-Braun-Jansen

And thinking on another generation … well, you get the picture.

This change is not yet law, and there is some opposition in its current form, but it is indicative of cultural changes in naming conventions that are happening in many societies. Strict inheritance of family names from a single parent is becoming less common than flexible naming laws, and in some societies has even become illegal.  With these changes comes the inevitable need of our data management systems to keep up with change. Are you still running processes such as house-holding, where all members of a single family unit are expected to share the same surname? Are you allowing punctuation marks such as hyphens to be data entered in name fields?  Are those name fields long enough for new, concatenated names?

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via @beantin on Twitter

You already need to be learning how to properly handle names as they exist in the real world rather than in your (possibly limited) personal experience, and as time goes on, you’ll find more and more problems in your data collection and processing systems if you don’t match the march of change in our societies.