What’s in a Name?

There has been a sorry lack of good news coming out of Turkey in recent years, so it’s good to be able to report on one positive initiative by the government – which allows citizens to do something about embarrassing, idiotic or otherwise unflattering surnames.

The Turkish government had good reason to impose surnames in 1934, not least because the sheer number of Turks called, for example, Mehmet the Son of Mehmet, rather complicated attempts at administration and may have even militated against a personal sense of identity; those Turkish memorials to wars which predated the new law, such as the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign, often bear long runs of identical names which can leave visitors with a distressing sense of victims whose enduring loss, for all their sacrifice, was to be indistinguishable from their fellows in perpetuity.

In keeping with the example of the national leader, Mustafa Kemal, who adopted the surname Atatürk (Father Turk), many of his subjects went down either the patriotic or the proud route, with Öztürk (Pure Turk), Özdemir (Pure Iron), Özalp (True Hero), Korkmaz (No Fear) and even Ölmez (Immortal) all proving popular.  One of my favourites, and the one I’d definitely have chosen for myself, is Dağdevıren (Overthrower of Mountains)

Clearly, however, some didn’t take such a route.  Some went for Aptal (Stupid), Donsuz (No Pants), Ördek (Duck), Deli (Crazy) and even Taşak (Testicle).  These are among the names more than 100,000 people have opted to change under a temporary amnesty whereby they may circumvent lengthy and expensive court procedures by applying direct to local civil registry offices.

In these cases family lore tends to point the finger at 1930s bureaucrats whose impatience with those who had failed to come up with surnames of their own evidently impelled them to mischief; I know a Şalvarli (Trousers) family whose members assume their forebear must have been wearing a striking pair of strides when he turned up without a plan to file his surname.

In other cases, however, I detect the native cussedness of people frustrated by yet another western imposition; in barely a decade, starting in 1923, Turks had been required to adopt a new alphabet, calendar and dress code, not to mention accepting a President rather than Sultan as head of state and a great deal besides.  Unlike our own surnames, often abraded by long usage and the circumstances of their adoption long since lost, Turkish surnames still seem freshly coined.  They act, then, as a reminder of the sweeping changes that took place in Turkey not yet a century ago and of the distance that Turks have travelled.  They also tell of the resistance that many felt about being remade in a western form not of their choosing – which bears on the tensions so evident in Turkey today.

They are also, of course, an enduring source of delight, which is why a part of me feels uneasy about this particular initiative.  While I get why the Testicles and the Ducks might have had enough of their surnames, I fear for some of those other glories that I’ve picked up on my travels.  I never got Mr Mavituna to explain the origins of his surname, but it would certainly sadden me if the Blue Danube family decided it was time they were called something else.