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The Inimitable Hyphen, Part I

Elisabeth Preston-Hsu, MD reviews the history of surnaming, challenging expectations of naming traditions, and "nerding out" over the power of hyphen.

My husband and I met with a lawyer last year to draw up a will.

We were sorting out how our names would be written on the final document. Having our written information already in front of him, the lawyer confirmed that I had two last names.

He’s ignoring the hyphen, I thought. It’s one name.

I corrected him and he moved on quickly, leaving me unsure if he understood my concern or ignored it. My frustration filtered through more than his lack of recognition; he overlooked the power of the hyphen altogether.

The hyphen is a tiny, suspended blunt needle and thread on paper, poised to join. A horizontal tick lying flat and stiff. A sturdy bridge.

My name is Elisabeth Preston-Hsu. A hyphen joins “Preston” and “Hsu” into one word. Preston-Hsu. These are proper names, fastened into one. What seemed easy, that joining, continues to generate confusion and strong reactions from others. Such responses continue to make me feel annoyed-by-you-being-annoyed. The hyphens demonstrate that it is all one feeling. My name, too, all one.

Because of my career as a physician, I introduce myself multiple times a day, likely more than many people do. I tell my patients: “There are a lot of Dr. Hsus and a lot of Dr. Prestons in the world. But there’s only one,” I hold up my finger and raise one eyebrow, “Dr. Preston-Hsu. All one word. Me.” I say my name just fast enough to sound like one word, but slow enough to enunciate each syllable. Such a proclamation usually generates a quick laugh or a smile. I often give patients my business card, pointing out the punctuation. About half of them recognize the mark as a hyphen, even the patients with cognitive issues. People who have no cognitive deficits often overlook it.

 

I tell my patients: 'There are a lot of Dr. Hsus and a lot of Dr. Prestons in the world. But there’s only one,' I hold up my finger and raise one eyebrow, 'Dr. Preston-Hsu. All one word. Me.' Click To Tweet

 

On my medical license, the hyphen resembles a trace of the black stubble on my husband’s chin. He doesn’t understand hyphens either.

When we were first married and at my husband’s behest, I was briefly and legally “Hsu.” “It’s tradition,” he explained, as if there was no choice.

“What about you changing your last name to mine?” I countered.

 

When we were first married and at my husband’s behest, I was briefly and legally 'Hsu.' 'It’s tradition,' he explained, as if there was no choice. 'What about you changing your last name to mine?' I countered. Click To Tweet

 

I stared at the paperwork two weeks after our wedding, pen poised in my hand, staring at the blank “Last Name” line.

No change.

Another week.

And another.

I hesitated changing my maiden name to my husband’s name. Finally, after six weeks, I was “Hsu.”

That name felt like a wool sweater, lovely and warm but needing a less itchy under-layer. I announced when I got into medical school that I would legally hyphenate. My husband shrugged, a tacit assumption I wouldn’t actually change my name again. I got into medical school a year after I held the surname “Hsu” and started the new paperwork for “Preston-Hsu.” My idea of a hyphenated name change wasn’t appealing to my husband. Nevertheless, I trotted out of the house with my driver’s license, passport, and our marriage certificate with a singular purpose. It took ten minutes at the Social Security office and thirty at the DMV, my signature like a curled and unraveled hyphen across the page, promising me a new and unique name.

In my experience, seeing my hyphenated last name frustrates more men than women, as most men I know don’t hyphenate. Men who hyphenate their last names seem to be even more misunderstood than women who do.

 

In my experience, seeing my hyphenated last name frustrates more men than women, as most men I know don’t hyphenate. Men who hyphenate their last names seem to be even more misunderstood than women who do. Click To Tweet

 

Some examples of things I hear from strangers, in the United States:

“Oh, you’re not Asian. Or a man.” (I know.)

“Which one is it? Preston or Hsu?” (Both, together. I told you already, when I introduced myself as Elisabeth Preston-Hsu and explained the hyphenation.)

“Your last name is too long.” (Write it down or repeat it over and over if the three syllables are too hard to remember.)

“Our computer system doesn’t accept ‘special characters.’ We either have to remove the hyphen or choose one name.” (“Preston-Hsu” is one name. Take out the hyphen and shove the letters together. Programmers, get on this issue. This is a problem in airports.)

“Why do your kids have a different last name than you do?” (Because we have different last names.)

“Is that your legal name?” (Yes. Does it seem illegal?)

“Why didn’t you drop your middle name, move your maiden name to your middle name, and take your husband’s last name when you got married?” (Because I didn’t want to. Corollary: Why didn’t he take my maiden name or hyphenate?)

 

To be continued.. (the 2nd part of this article series will be published on August 29th)

This piece first appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Fall 2021.

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