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I was pondering the term maiden name when talking with British English speakers recently. They don’t seem to have that term. So my question is two-fold:

  1. Is there another term for maiden name, especially in British English?

  2. Does anyone find maiden a little offensive? I mean, is it OK to call an unmarried woman a maiden?

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I doubt many people find maiden offensive. It's just a bit dated/archaic. And apart from being a bit "la-di-dah", née isn't the same part of speech. I'm quite used to hearing people speak of "birth name" to get round those two problems. –  FumbleFingers Sep 22 '11 at 18:39
    
Remember that men can also have maiden names‌​, and I don’t just mean whatever the maidens call them, either. –  tchrist Aug 8 '13 at 16:57
    
@FumbleFingers Quoth Wiktionary: “The masculine form, , is less common but is occasionally used to give the birth name of a man who has changed his name for some reason. Née and are also used more generally to denote former names (as opposed to birth names), and earlier names of inanimate entities such as companies and products.” And here. –  tchrist Aug 8 '13 at 17:13
    
@tchrist: They simplified the rules and dramatically reduced the cost of changing your name by Deed Poll in the UK not long ago, and apparently the number of people doing this has skyrocketed in the last year or two. Probably lots of them are immigrants "Anglicising" their names. If I saw the form , I'd probably assume that was the likely context. –  FumbleFingers Aug 8 '13 at 17:41

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The word "maiden" (at least in the UK) is now essentially an obsolete word. It's not that anyone would find it particularly offensive, so much as it's basically not used any more. (As with other obsolete words, it's occasionally used for irony, so you might jokingly refer to somebody as a "fair maiden", but the intent is humoristic rather than to cause offence.)

But, as is often the case, this obsolete word survives in the fixed phrase "maiden name", which is still perfectly common in British usage. I don't think anyone finds it offensive-- it's just an administrative term, and the word "maiden", offensive or not, is as I say to all intents and purposes no longer used anyway. People are generally familiar with the term because it's very very common for banks to ask you, for example, what your "mother's maiden name" is.

However, as English is an international language, now spoken by more non-native than native speakers, there's also a move to try and avoid obscure terms, or deliberately choose alternatives whose meaning is more obvious to speakers of other languages. So it's possible we may see a move towards alternatives such as "Family name before you were married".

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4  
We can still bowl a maiden over. –  Barrie England Sep 22 '11 at 11:28
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Especially with my wit and charm –  Matt Эллен Sep 22 '11 at 11:54
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@Barrie: I'm not sure I could! –  Matt Sep 22 '11 at 11:57
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Hair metal bands may be a thing of the past, but I wouldn't say that Maiden is obsolete. Where would we be without hits like "Run to the Hills"? –  oosterwal Sep 22 '11 at 13:30
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I believe maiden was used to imply virgin, when that was more nearly synonymous with unmarried, and what happened was that maidenhood itself became (more or less) obsolete. The obsolescence of the word merely followed. –  mickeyf Sep 22 '11 at 13:58

"Maiden name" may sound archaic, but it still functions better than "birth name," because the latter assumes that you have had the same surname since birth. This is not true in my case; my mother married when I was two and my legal name was changed along with hers. Given that my biological father was a deadbeat and that my stepfather is a wonderful person, I take issue with people calling my current name my "birth name."

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I'm not sure how you got that impression. The term is very much alive and well and is the standard terminology for a married woman's surname pre-dating her marriage.

However, the degree to which some people don't recognise their own language can be staggering at times.

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A maiden is an "unmarried" woman. Therefore, a woman's "maiden name" is her "unmarried" (last) name, the one she received from her father.

A woman's married name is the one she receives from her husband. Some women nowadays do not take their husband's surname, and therefore continue to use their "maiden" name.

Women are seldom referred to as maidens anymore (except in jest), but as a qualifier to "name," the term has "stuck."

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In answer to your two:

Technically "maiden" refers to whether the young lady in question has experienced sexual intercourse before or not. Perhaps there was a day when this was very salient information in social situations, but today is not such a day.

Use of the word by itself to refer to a female would carry the implication that you consider the woman's past sexual history your business, which it almost certianly is not. So it really should be avoided in all but the most unusual of cases.

The term "Maiden Name" can be considered one of those cases. It is fairly safe to assume that at some point (birth at least), every woman qualified, so it is fairly reasonable as a shorthand to refer what their name was at that point in the indeterminate past.

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I disagree: maiden and virgin are not exact synonyms. In particular, maiden just means "never married"; it doesn't, on its own, refer to sexual experience — that's merely an assumption that could be made based on societal mores. Objecting to the word maiden on the grounds that "it's none of anyone's business" goes way beyond overly sensitive and into the realm of utterly ridiculous. –  Marthaª Sep 22 '11 at 18:54
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The OED’s definition 2a is ‘a virgin’, with the qualification ‘now rare’. –  Barrie England Sep 22 '11 at 19:37
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@Marthaª - I'm sorry, but you have that exactly backwards. Maiden originally meant "virgin", and came to be used for "never married" based on societal expectations about sex and marriage. –  T.E.D. Sep 23 '11 at 14:29

In written (esp. formal) English the term "née" (literally, born) is used to denote the surname at birth, e.g Barbara Smith née Jones.

Maiden name is definitely alive and well and in use in Britain, as Neil said - mother's maiden name is a very common 'security' question for banks. I'd also agree maiden is very archaic used on its own.

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On that note, I've always found people in the sub-continent answer that question as "Barbara" and not "Jones". Is that a common mistake or does that never happen in the UK? –  JoseK Sep 22 '11 at 12:23
    
Never say never! But I'd say that it would be very uncommon for a native BE speaker to confuse given/first/christian name (all of which can be used to refer to the 'Barbara' part of the name) for maiden name. –  Matt Sep 22 '11 at 12:31
    
Quoth Wiktionary: “The masculine form, , is less common but is occasionally used to give the birth name of a man who has changed his name for some reason. Née and are also used more generally to denote former names (as opposed to birth names), and earlier names of inanimate entities such as companies and products.” –  tchrist Aug 8 '13 at 17:12

Oh yes, we do, but it's perhaps a little archaic. Alternatives might be 'unmarried name' or 'name before you were married'. Others will have to say whether it's offensive or not, but changing patterns of marriage and cohabitation make it seem less relevant than it once was.

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