A Christmas Card Plus Four Names for One Man Equals an Administrative Problem

By David North on December 23, 2020

A Christmas card that arrived at our house reminded me of one of the Department of Homeland Security's lesser problems — the naming systems of some immigrant groups.

The card in this case came from my faithful newspaper deliveryman — I have never met him, but if I am up early I see his car slow to deliver the Washington Post and the New York Times to our house in Arlington, Va. He sends the card annually along with an enclosed envelope with his name and address on it so that I can send him a Christmas gift, which I do.

This year's mailing had four elements in it on which he could record his name: the back of the arriving envelope, the card itself, the address on the envelope to him, and a little printed note inside the card.

I will not use his real, four-part name, which is Islamic; let's call him Mohammad Shakor Turtughi Ali. Here's how he identified himself on each of the four items described above:

  • On the back of the incoming envelope it was Mohammad Shakor;
  • On the card: Mohammad Ali;
  • On the envelope addressed to him: Shakor Turtughi; and
  • On the printed note: Mohammad Shakor Turtughi Ali.

If you only look at the second and third items you will find that there is no overlap in the names.

There is nothing wrong about his various uses of all or parts of his name in this setting, but suppose he innocently did the same thing with various government forms, such as his immigration records, his state and federal income tax returns, and his driver's license — what a mess! I wonder how DHS copes with these naming problems.

Meanwhile, in a different part of the world, the problem is not too many last names, but too few. In the Icelandic system, for example, last names for women all end in "dottir" and for men they end in "son". So a family made up of a father, mother, daughter, and son will all have different last names. The Icelandic phone books handle this by using an alphabetic order based on first names.

The current prime minister, for example, is Katrin Jakobsdottir, who succeeded Bjarni Benediktsson.

In the meantime, Mr. Ali's card (or Mr. Shakor's, or Mr. Turtughi's) reminds me to wish my readers a very pleasant holiday season — and a safe one.