The Frequently Asked Questions page of the Web site of the New York City Marriage Bureau offers many delights, not the least of which is the answer to the question “Can two first cousins marry?” The answer in the state of New York is “yes,” but the Office of the City Clerk takes a more oblique approach, telling readers first that “[a] marriage may not take place […] between an ancestor and descendant (that is, a parent, grandparent, etc. and an offspring (child)), a brother and sister (full or half blood), an uncle and niece or an aunt and nephew, regardless of whether or not these persons are legitimate or illegitimate offspring.” The purpose of this preamble, I’m guessing, is to let us know that although we may not be living in one of those unsophisticated states—you know, the ones where you’re permitted to inbreed with your sibling’s bastard child!—the fact remains that “[t]here is no legal bar against marriage between cousins.” Or maybe the answer is phrased in this way in order to say that, although it may be technically legal, it’s not like the Marriage Bureau condones this sort of behavior? (Another thing I’m wondering: Is that question really asked of the City Clerk frequently?) Similarly surprising, at least in terms of taboos being crossed in a way that might differ from a reader’s expectations regarding the laws of a state in the Northeast, are the hurdles faced by New Yorkers getting married in their teenage years (there are many when you’re fourteen; things get a little easier at the age of sixteen).
But the most interesting information here, to my mind, is the complicated answer to the question “What are my surname options?” If I’m understanding this right, you can change your last name to anything you want at any time—but it’s not easy. However, matters are slightly simplified, in terms of letting the Social Security Administration know what you’re up to, if you begin the process of changing your name with your marriage license; but if you do choose this route, your options are limited to the following: 1) your name or the name of the person you’re marrying, 2) either of your maiden names or previous married names, 3) a hyphenation of any of those names, or (and this is the kooky part) 4) some hybrid of some selection of syllables from any of those names. So if the surnames of you and your intended were, say, “Newton-John” and “Travolta,” it would be somewhat difficult to choose a new last name of “McQueen” or “Surreptitious” or “Vermont” or “Murfrangalimöot”—but if, on the other hand, you wanted to be “the Newvoltas” or “the Trohn family” or “Mr. and Mrs. Johvo,” that would be much, much easier.
Does this mean that the portmanteau-word option is that much more popular than the brand-new word option? I’m not terribly enamored of either; both seem better suited to the marriages of banks and consulting firms than to those of human beings. (I mean, if pursuing the neologistic route, why not take it all the way to Roz Chast territory, and call yourselves Mr. and Mrs. Vvv?) But then, it also seems anomalous that “less than 5 percent of American women keep or hyphenate their name after marrying.”
No matter what you end up doing, the City Clerk adds (in bolded text), the marriage records will stay that way forever. But surely no one needs a further reminder, at this stage, of the enormity of their undertaking?