It's often a symbol of a new life. A fresh start. A statement of independence.
Thousands of people each year petition Maryland's circuit courts to change their names -- a simple request that is almost always legally unnecessary and almost always granted.
Judges say state law gives them little leeway -- regardless of how outlandish the requested moniker may be. In Howard County, for example, a woman who is a patient in a mental institution recently changed her name from Susan to Lucifer. In another case, a man changed his name to Bill Clinton shortly after the 1992 presidential election.
Some petitioners are divorced women returning to their maiden names. Some are prison inmates who have undergone jail house conversions and want religious names. Others are immigrants who want names that are more common, more typically American.
That was the case with Kwang Eun Chun and So Eun Chun of Ellicott City, who are tired of endless mispronunciations of their Korean first names. They soon will become legally known as Katherine and Therisa, adding the English names to the beginning of their Korean ones.
"For me in a way it's kind of sad," said Kwang Eun Chun, adding that maintaining Korean traditions is important to her and her sister. "This was the name I was born with."
By law, their requests must be granted -- as are most others -- as long as the new names will not be used for fraudulent purposes. But even without going to court, use of their new names would be legal.
"It probably should not be in the court system at all," said Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney of Howard County, which gets about 400 name-change requests a year. "With all the court cases we have, do we need these?"
But many name-changers want the courts' imprimatur.
For the Chuns, the practically of legally taking the American names -- originally picked at random and used since childhood -- overrode their concerns about heritage.
So Eun Chun was having difficulty obtaining financial aid for college because her birth name did not match the name Therisa on her Social Security card. Kwang Eun Chun thought it was time she do the same, changing her name to Katherine.
Kwang Eun Chun, who moved with her sister and the rest of their family to the United States in 1976 and became a citizen in 1985, said they would never consider changing their last names, noting that she knows of only one Korean native who has done so.
"In the Korean community, that was really looked down upon," she said. "In Korea, a name is very important. Not only does it have meaning, it has heritage behind it."
The Chun sisters are adding first names; others alter their last names.
Andrew Kind and Kenwyn Fuller started talking about their names shortly before they were married in July 1991. Ms. Fuller, an attorney, wanted to keep her last name for professional reasons.
But for Mr. Kind, it wasn't enough for her to just add his name with a hyphen. He wanted one family name.
Now, the Columbia couple are giving their union its own name: In a few weeks they will become the Kind-Fullers.
"We really are two families coming together," said Mr. Kind, a 35-year-old sales executive with a Columbia packaging business. "One way to show that . . . is to have the family represented by one name."
Their 2-year-old son, Vincent, already has the last name Kind-Fuller. Their second child, due any day, also will have the name.
Even though there is little to the court process, changing a name requires a lot of paperwork, Ms. Fuller said. She and her husband are busy putting passports, driver's licenses and credit cards into their new names. "We're still trying to think of all the things we have to do," she said.
Mr. Kind acknowledged that his new last name has caught the attention of friends and co-workers. "The fact that we used my name first has raised a lot of eyebrows," he said. "Even when you do something untraditional, there seems to be a traditional way to do it. . . . But it's really a commitment to what we're doing as a family."
By contrast, Karin Babst of North Laurel and Marilyn Walt of Columbia are changing theirs to reflect the demise of past unions and the start of new lives.
Ms. Babst, divorced in 1977, is asking the court for permission to return to her maiden name, Loya. "I always said, 'When my kids grow up, I'll do it,' " said Ms. Babst, who wanted to avoid confusion caused by having a last name different from that of her children. "The years went by and they're grown up."
Ms. Babst, who started using Loya about eight months ago, said she is proud to use her maiden name in her signature again, change employment records to reflect her new name and perform as a cellist with her parents' name.
"There's something about it," said the 53-year-old supervisor at Hughes Corp. in Landover. "It makes me feel good."
For Ms. Walt, returning to her maiden name, Nobles, concludes what she started in 1988 when she divorced her husband of 22 years. "It puts a finish to everything," said the 51-year-old teacher at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Savage.
Since she has been back at work for the new school year, Ms. Walt has been using her maiden name. Many of her co-workers have been asking whether she got married again. Dropping her married name was simple, she tells them: "It's just a name I really don't require anymore."