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06/14/2004 Archived Entry: "What's in a name?"

I ONCE WROTE AN ARTICLE ABOUT SURNAMES and how governments have imposed and used family names for tracking and taxing us. It's one of my favorites. Now Simon Jester sends word from a far corner of the world -- where one government forbade people to have surnames and another is now "encouraging" and registering surnames, with sometimes quirky results.

Mongolians have been officially encouraged to register surnames since 1997, with most doing so in the past four years. But 10 per cent of the population still don't have one, finding it impossible to trace their family history.

Many of them look to Serjee Besud. The director of the Central State Library is Mongolia's premier surname expert and has written a book advising people how to choose an appropriate name. He uses census data from the 18th century when Mongolia was under Manchu Chinese control, as well as army records.

"I tell them to think of something they were born near," he said, "the name of a river, valley or mountain. Or people might call themselves after their occupation. We have many Mr Writers and Mr Hunters, even a Mr Policeman."

Mongolians were traditionally called things like Three Drunk Men or White Horse before the ban - names some are returning to.

A lot of old people refuse to participate in the government program. "They want to die with the name they had all their life," Mr Besud said.

Posted by Claire @ 09:23 AM CST

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