BBC news presenter Ben Bland has changed his surname to Boulos after a period of reflection in lockdown prompted him to reassess his identity.
At a time when anti-immigrant sentiments are widespread around the globe, changing your name to sound more ethnic may be considered a bold move for someone who is a public figure.
Explaining his decision on his website, Mr Boulos, who is a bilingual Arabic/English speaker, said the surname Bland “hid aspects of [his] identity that were important to [him] but not immediately to others.”
Of mixed heritage, Boulos took on his maternal family’s surname to reflect his bicultural upbringing to a Sudanese-Egyptian mother and English father.
He announced the change on social media with the Tweet: “Same Ben. Less Bland.” It has already received thousands of likes and elicited hundreds of congratulatory comments and personal reflections from people who have themselves grappled with the meaning and historiography of their names.
Speaking to The National, Mr Boulos said he never expected his announcement to generate as much interest as it has. "I've been overwhelmed by messages from people all over the world who were grappling with the same issue … the thing I feared most was that people wouldn't get it or why it mattered," before adding that clearly "people have been thinking the same but questioned whether it was worth the hassle."
Mr Boulos admitted that he was worried about the consequences the name change could have on his career. “I did think about whether I was undoing all the years I spent establishing my name and reputation and wondered if I was starting from scratch again but it doesn’t feel like that ... it feels like it is building on it, not knocking it down,” he said.
Judging by the hundreds of responses on Twitter, his decisions clearly resonated with many who admitted they had “their own thoughts [about this] over the years” with some saying they changed their own names for “very similar reasons.”
“As someone who has had similar internal dialogues and also gone on to change their name as an adult … any confusion is quickly replaced by a wonderful new sense of identity and purpose,” wrote one Twitter user, and the TV personality and columnist Dr Ellie Cannon said that a colleague of hers did something similar and “never looked back.” Comments included congratulating Mr Boulos on “a brave change” and for “amplifying … identity”, with one user remarking that it was “a wonderful thing when people can consciously take charge of their own identities and use names.”
Mr Boulos said he had been particularly struck by a message from someone who had been considering anglicising their name to fit in but decided to stick with their foreign-sounding name after reading his blog post. “To feel like I’ve inspired that strength of identity in someone else is really humbling and I’m delighted,” said Mr Boulos.
Ironically, Mr Boulos’ paternal family changed their surname in the early 1920s from Blumenthal to Bland to avoid anti-Semitic discrimination. Hailing from Lithuania and Russia, his ancestors were afraid of the consequences their Jewish name would bring in their new home in Britain. Mr Boulos’ revelation prompted others to share similar experiences, since, as one user put it, “adapting typically Jewish surnames was sadly commonplace, to be less ‘conspicuous.’”
As to why he didn’t change his name to a Jewish one, Mr Boulos, who was raised in the Coptic Orthodox faith, wrote that his religion was significant to him, adding that he still attends services that are conducted in English, Arabic and Coptic.
“I have wondered whether changing from the name 'Bland' is somehow disloyal to the memory of my great-grandmother’s wise decision, without which I may not be here. But times change, thankfully for the better. We can now increasingly celebrate the difference and diversity in our backgrounds rather than having to hide them,” wrote Mr Boulos.
Perhaps the most fitting summation of the wide-reaching effect of his decision on the question of national identity came from a Tweet which read: “a Coptic Christian Arabic German Jewish heritage sounds as best of British as it comes.”
For those put off by the bureaucratic processes involved, Mr Boulos has some advice: “Your name is a small tag but one that says a lot about you. So, if you want people to know you by a certain name, then do it and worry about sorting out everything else later."