Women: What Is So Bad About Your Names?

Why do women change their last names when they get married?  Setting aside the fact that it is the conventional thing to do, the reasons women change their names aren’t overly persuasive.  Many of the female friends and relatives who are dearest to me have changed their last names, and they are intelligent, thoughtful individuals who probably considered the following arguments, so I hope that they and other women like them will submit comments about why they disagree.

The custom of married women changing to their husband’s last name is a relic of the times when wives were the legal property of their husbands.  The modern parlance of “taking” one’s husband’s name makes it sound like the wife’s independent choice, but it looks different when viewed in the context of history.  It’s like engagement rings, which are effectively a down payment.  (I have one myself, but only because when I got engaged people kept asking where my ring was, plus they are just so pretty and sparkly.)

Nowadays some women say they change their names because it is “easier” – when they call their children’s school or doctor, there is less explaining to do.  But really, how hard is it to say “my name is Smith, but my kids’ last name is Jones”?  As a person with an unusual first name (though it seems to be gaining popularity), I have spent maybe an extra 15 seconds each on many phone calls spelling out my name.  As a wife with a different last name from my husband, I have spent maybe 45 seconds on the phone explaining that while my name is Hoffman, I’m calling about my husband, whose name is Roth.  Granted, telephone customer service is a hassle, but I doubt that going to the lengths of getting a new driver’s license and passport is going to make it any more pleasant.

For those who feel strongly about this “same name as the kids” issue, I admire the solution a friend adopted: she kept her last name and gave it to her children.  Because she is the primary caretaker she is more likely to be calling the school or the doctor or whoever, so by sharing her own last name with her children she avoids whatever hassle she might face if her name were different from theirs.  (Like my friend, her husband kept his own last name.  But I suppose that goes without saying.)

Another reason some women offer for changing their last names is that they don’t want to feel left out of their families as the only member with a different last name.  This suggests that they understand names to be important signifiers of identity; it follows that by giving up their own last names, they are burying or even repudiating their pre-marriage identities, including their membership in the families who raised them (sometimes dropping the original “nuclear” family’s name is the most alluring reason to change one’s last name, but surely that’s true for men too).  But wives don’t have to choose between their childhood family and their married family: both spouses can hyphenate their names and give the same hyphenated last name to their children.  (What those children choose to do when they get married is their problem.)

A couple who feels strongly that their family should share the same last name has another option: choosing a new last name that combines the wife’s and husband’s name, or a name that is entirely new and expresses something about their marriage and the identity of their new family.  Both partners then share equally in the formation of their new identities and in symbolically moving away from their old ones, but also in considering and shaping their identity or character as a new family.  Plus this option opens up exciting new possibilities: want to be a Kennedy?  Or better yet, a Colbert?  Go right ahead!

Some women change their last names because it is important to their husbands.  But if a man is already dictating what his wife’s very name will be just as they are starting out in life together, it does not bode well for his respect of her independence in other matters.  (If he is willing to trade for things that are important to the woman, however, she might as well explore the opportunities for profitable bartering.)

Of course these are generalizations and each woman’s experience is unique, but the phenomenon of women changing their last names to their husbands’ is the norm, and it is troubling.  Would you all please explain why you keep doing it?


48 thoughts on “Women: What Is So Bad About Your Names?

  1. Melissa says:

    I’m with you. I couldn’t do it. I mean, how could I give up “Bugg”? 🙂

  2. Elisa Peimer says:

    I didn’t change my name either – it didn’t even occur to me, except when other people asked me if I was changing my name. Changing my name would make me feel like I was changing my identity, and I didn’t equate marriage with changing my identity.

  3. Jessica says:

    I didn’t change mine either, and I was surprised when my friends did change their names. My stepmother “warned” that I’d feel different once I had kids, but I don’t see that happening.

  4. anna says:

    i’m totally changing my name to colbert now!

  5. Anne Golden says:

    When I married my now-ex, I changed my surname to his — mostly to please his family. Also, it somehow made me feel more married, and it was much easier to pronounce than my birth surname. When we divorced, I didn’t change back, and when I remarried, I STILL didn’t change back. My reasons were: (1) It had been my professional name for a decade and a half, (2) It was my children’s last name, and incidentally (3) as an added bonus, it fried his brain. He obviously felt that I had “taken” something that belonged to him, and for more than a year after I remarried, he refused to call me by “his” last name and instead consistently attached my new husband’s last name, which I have never used myself. My new husband doesn’t care either way, showing that he is a good deal more mature than my ex.

  6. Jen says:

    As you know, Piper, I kept my name. (I identify with Melissa above–once you’ve spent 30+ years with a name like “Bugg” or “Corn,” how do you give that up?). But my partner would hear nothing of passing “Corn” down to future generations and I was reluctant to just hand over all naming rights to her, so we had to come up with a solution for the kids. Having been a teacher for a good long time now, I find hyphenated last names pretty cumbersome and didn’t want to saddle my kids with one. We tried to agree on a new last name that somehow incorporated both of our names, and couldn’t make that work either. In the end we were thrilled with what we considered an elegant solution–our daughter’s first name, Maize, refers to my last name. I love it.

  7. Cara says:

    Here is why I changed my last name:

    “Some women change their last names because it is important to their husbands.”

    That’s it. That’s the sole reason I changed my last name. But, unlike your next point, it was no indicia of our relationship going forward. My husband was willing to work to put me through law school, take primary responsibility for running the house, stay home with our children, and offer me his unflagging love and support. He is my biggest champion. Having received all of this in exchange for taking his last name, I believe that I got the better end of the deal.

  8. India says:

    I’m with you too Piper. I didn’t change my name. In fact, my mother was a great role model because she didn’t change her name. This precedent made it very easy for me to get over the “what about the kids” question. My son has a different last name from me and I’ve never felt that it was an issue. I’ve always thought it was cool that my mom kept her name, and I hope he does also.

  9. LB says:

    I briefly hyphenated my name when I got married. I’m not sure why. I don’t have a compelling reason and my husband didn’t care. Perhaps I was young (24) and naive. In any case, I never used the hyphenated name and continued to use my “maiden” name. Then I went to law school and some professors chose to call me by the second half of my hyphenated name. Whoa! That’s not me. That’s not my name. That’s not my identity. Within a week, I changed my name back. I’ve been happy ever since.

  10. Mr. Moscato says:

    Piper, I didn’t change my name either! Seriously, I agree with your point, changing a woman’s name after marriage just doesn’t make sense (unless you consider an “I own you now” angle, which is much more scary). My wife kept her name, and I believe (hope?) that she is not too troubled by having to say “mother of so-and-so” when she calls the kids’ school.

    By way of full disclosure, my wife did suggest either hyphenating our names for both of us, or creating a brand new family name, but I just couldn’t do it.

    Keep on posting,

    Mr. Moscato

  11. Haley says:

    Piper, I couldn’t agree with you more. Great post.

  12. Kat says:

    When I married, I kept my name. My son has his father’s/my ex-husband’s last name. In the last 10 years of solo parenting, the name difference has posed no problems for either of us. It has not made school officials or doctors get confused or treat him like a fatherless child. We have not been shamed or felt less of a family because we have different last names. Actually, I never think about it until I read or hear something about why or why not to take the surname of your hubby. We have made it through the world as mother and son unscathed. When I made the choice, I realized I could never give up the last name Hammer….

  13. sartreisacelticsfan says:

    Did you see this piece in BAM, Piper?


    I like her point that keeping “one’s own” name (normally one’s father’s) is no less a perpetuation of patriarchy than changing it –but in the end I think she just abdicates from a serious consideration of the feminist issues.

    The last few sentences really encapsulated the issue for me. Jessica Grose (associate editor at Slate) concludes:
    “And that was the comment that finally sunk in; changing my name would be sweet. So I decided that in my professional life, I will use Grose and in my personal life, Winton. In the end, it is a relatively small thing—really just for driver’s licenses and tax returns. But as a gesture to my future husband, it’s immense.”

    As you note, Piper, one cannot really have it both ways –is it “a small thing” or “immense”?


  14. cameron says:

    Not sure it goes without saying that husbands keep their names. I know a number of men who’ve changed their names upon getting married. One guy did it because in the state of washington marriage was the one time you were allowed to change your name for free, which seemed a little nuts to me at the time, but to each his own. The whole issue has always seemed like a bit of a non-issue to me, if someone wants to change their name, fine, if not, who cares? As for what to call the kids, I think the smart thing to do is to make sure the kids have names which are unique enough that they can be googled, apart from that, again, I don’t think it makes a damn bit of difference.

  15. Esther says:

    Hmmm… I changed my name when I got married. It was sort of a pain, but I never really thought about not doing it. I guess it’s the traditional side of me. I don’t feel that my identity changed in any way, and I don’t feel that the “former” me is in any way gone. Maybe it’s just me. The funny thing is, there are two schools in my husband’s family on how to pronounce the last name. He chooses the more Americanized version, and in my professional life, I go by the more traditional Polish pronunciation. I just like it better. So I guess we go by different names after all. Nice post!

  16. Laura says:

    Just to add another support for the “its really only 45 seconds” – I grew up with a different last name than both my parents (who had different last names from eachother) and, you know what, school was fine. Yea, there was maybe the few times in 13 years where I got second glances on sick notes and then I would explain or they would look in my file and there you go. Same with the hospital when my step-father (although at that time my mother’s boyfriend) took me to the ER after I split my lip slipping on ice in kindergarten. Likely because of this family upbringing my last name (admittedly my father’s last name, whom I am not close to) feels even more mine and a part of my identity, one I hope to pass along to the next generation as well.

  17. Alexia says:

    Hi Piper. Love Rock the Boat. Not sure there is a good solution on names. I did not want to change my name and neither did my husband. That eliminated a lot of options. We didn’t hyphenate the kids’ names because it seemed to us, at the time, to be pretentious. We went with my husband’s last name for the kids mainly because otherwise — at least where we live — people would assume he is not their “real” father. Women with different last names from the children simply risk being labeled feminist (gasp!), but aren’t automatically assumed to be Dad’s girlfriend. This was the tie-breaker of sorts, although I’m not sure why it mattered. I have to confess I value efficiency over all else, including principles of equity and principles of honesty, and I will identify myself on the phone by whatever name will save time.

  18. Greg Harris says:

    Great post, Piper.

    My wife wanted to take my last name, and I was fine with that. I feel like it ought to be a choice rather than an expectation, and am surprised whenever people question others’ decisions in this area (whether it’s a progressive questioning the “traditional” decision or vice versa). I have a hard time feeling judgmental when there are so many good reasons to make whatever choice one makes.

    I do like the idea of an immediate family unit all sharing the same surname: we are the Harris family, or the Hoffman family, or whatever it may be. It’s a sign that my primary identity is membership in that unit. For me, that feels right. For others, perhaps less so.

    Sharing the same surname need not be traditional, as others have noted above. Friends of ours have hyphenated, name-merged, or ditched anything resembling their former surnames in favor of a completely new one. There’s something really fun about that last option, especially when the result is something unexpected!

    Last point: I loved Jen’s post, above, about working with her partner to find the right name for their daughter. The ultimate decision, to honor the surname “Corn” by naming their daughter “Maize,” is an absolutely wonderful, elegant solution.

  19. Katherine says:

    I have to say I do think you are making a mountain out of a molehill. That said, I was raised by a single mom with a different last name than mine and I HATED it. Every permission slip was a nightmare for me, and I have to say I felt much more stigmatized by being the only kid in class whose mom had a different last name than by being the only kid in the class whose parents were divorced (although perhaps in my subconscious the two were somehow interrelated). As adults, I can imagine that for you it’s a non-issue and not even mildly inconvenient, but are you sure the kids really see it the same way?

    I too went through a phase in college (after my I’m never getting married phase) where I said I would never change my name and sacrifice my identity for a man. But the day I got married I realized that I wanted to embark on our new life together as a unit, that my husband was my family now, and since I hadn’t heard of Colbert at the time, Palacios seemed like a good choice.

    No one has commented yet on the Spanish/Latin American custom, which seems the healthiest and most sensible, which is that everyone is given two last names (not hyphenated): their father’s first and then their mother’s. Then, when they get married, if they choose to take their husband’s name (which most people don’t) they add a “de” before it and tack it on at the end. So my name would be Katherine Kadison Graham de Palacios. Quite a mouthful! Yet all identities are firmly in place.

    • Anjali says:

      Hi Katherine,

      Just a question: why is the assumption that in order for you to “embark on [your] new life together as a unit” you had to take his name? Why couldn’t he take yours? It achieves the same purpose, right? But that doesn’t really seem to be much of an option, as Piper pointed out. And that, for me, is the problem in the taking the name scenario. The husband/man is never (or rarely) asked to sacrifice his name and if he is, it is considered novel or odd – depending on who you ask.

  20. Heather says:

    Hi Piper

    One thing I learned way back when is that the more a couple integrates their lives, specifically the “stuff”, including finances, the greater the chance that they will remain married. i.e., if we keep finances separate it becomes easier to split when things get tough (we do have a 50% divorce rate which is frightening). Although that was from a study at least 15 years ago, I’m thinking there is still truth to it. Names seem to fit right in line there…if we keep our lives separate and individual, don’t we make it easier to bail? Does it make a strong couple-identity more difficult? Just a thought. Oh, and for the record, I’m a hyphenator with no strong feelings one way or the other about names, but the only couples I know where the woman kept her name for reasons other than her professional identity are no longer married…something to chew on.

    • piperhoffman says:

      Hi Heather, thanks for posting. I kept my name (for non-professional reasons, obviously) and I’m coming up on 15 years of marriage. So now you know at least one couple with different names who are still married!

  21. John says:

    By the time I was married – at 33, 15 years ago – I couldn’t understand why a woman would seriously want to change their name, which was a good thing, since getting my wife to give up the connection that her name gave to her Italian heritage would have been the last straw. Getting her to continue to live in the South was close enough to the breaking point. I would have considered hyphenating but for the length of our names. Our kids would have hated us and the names would never fit in those perpetually short boxes on paper and internet forms. Of course, having kids – with my last name – may raise questions about whether Marisa is a step-mom (I honestly don’t know about this) but the explanation is no more inconvenient than explaining why we have a small but cute as can be Asian child leading us around. Which has lead to lots of discussions of late related to identity – Marisa has her Italian name and Sophia (6) has her Chinese middle name. But, as we have learned, these issues are so very personal and – as we lawyers say – raise questions that get decided on a “case by case basis.”

  22. Jennifer Weinberg says:

    Hi, Piper. Long time, no communicate. I love your blogs and this issue is close to my heart. I got married a year and a half ago at age 35. I had been Jennifer Weinberg for thirty five years and I couldn’t imagine any reason to change that. My husband is fiercely defensive of my name, immediately correcting anyone who calls me Jennifer Mirsky. Actually, he’s more adamant than I am, since I really don’t care if the phone company lady calls me Mrs. Mirsky. (Actually, it bothers me more that I’m not called Doctor Mirsky, if we’re splitting hairs.)

    I’m pregnant now and unlike some of your friends, I think it would bother me if my son doesn’t have my last name. Yet my husband feels the same, and so I guess we’re just going with the cumbersome hyphen solution. I guess we’ll see how that works out.

    • piperhoffman says:

      So good to hear from you, Doc! Congratulations on all the wonderful developments. Your husband sounds like a peach.
      It actually does bug me when the phone company person calls me Mrs. Roth, as I am neither Mrs. nor Roth. I feel like giving them my mother-in-law’s phone number. But the reason it bugs me is that it reminds me how strong the assumption is that I would give up my own name, not just that they got my name wrong. With the name Piper I’ve gotten to the point where I just find it funny when people bungle my name.

  23. Well said Piper! I must admit this is one of my pet peeves, so thanks for taking the time to walk through all these arguments. Another reality that comes with changing your name upon marriage is that you fall off the map when your old name disappears. May be the whole point for some people, but if you like to keep in touch with old friends and acquaintances it’s hard to find the old “you” if your old name is history. Also, I’ve always felt that if the reason for keeping your name has anything to do with stemming patriarchal traditions, then it naturally makes sense to extend the naming consideration to offspring. I didn’t give a thought to changing my name when I married, and my husband and I elected to give our son a combo double-barrelled last name – no hyphen. No problems at school either – quite the opposite.

  24. Marianna says:

    My maiden name was Khevelev. Have you tried to say Khevelev? It takes more than 2 seconds to spell Khevelev to every customer service rep. Also, I won’t lie, I did want the whole family to have the same name, and my husband didn’t really care what I did name-wise. But then again, what can you expect from a closeted Republican?

    • piperhoffman says:

      I almost mentioned that one exception for me is women with last names that are difficult, suggestive, or have bad associations for the individual. One high school friend in particular had a last name so unpleasant that even I would have changed it, but I don’t want to out her by sharing.

  25. Brian Flanagan says:

    Well, I’m still single, but I truly think it is up to the development of the relationship as to whether the name is changed. Personally, when I was younger (and engaged, and in the midwest) it was simply the norm for a woman to “take” her husband’s last name. My feeling was that, in that context, it seems to really take away from the woman’s voice and her strength. Call it a bit of semantics, but my feeling is that if it is something that can’t be discussed before deciding to get married, that speaks more to the fear of having a good dialogue with your partner. Many people get married for many different reasons, and those reasons continue to evolve. In my opinion it is something that should be able to be discussed between the two people involved and be something that they both are confident about when that time comes. Also, looking at the increasingly likelihood of gay couples who are in life-long relationships, sometimes the bond of the name symbolizes a unification that they have been been longing for since first imagining being in love and being with a life-long partner.

    Personally, Tradition is something that is important to me. But also what is important is the ability to challenge and recreate tradition is something that excites me. I’m the youngest of 5 kids, but the way it looks now, I may be the only breeder in the family who can pass along “Flanagan,” and that is a pretty strong weight to bear; particularly being as it encompassed one of the most important things to my dad as he told me days before he passed away.

    I also really like the combining of the names. That just kinda ‘gets me’ in a good way. It is a really great blend.

    But all in all, after reading through these posts, I’m really starting to consider a name-change to Colber(t).

  26. Jennifer Footlik Zukerman says:

    As a kid, I never fantasized about my wedding–but I did fantasize about taking my husband’s name. Be it Butkus or Fokker, it had to be better than mine. When the time came, however, I got strangely attached to it. NOT enough to use it on a daily basis, but enough to make it my middle name. Now I have a lovely, mellifluous middle name!

  27. Jennifer Footlik Zukerman says:

    Oh, Piper, am I the high school friend with the really bad name?

    • piperhoffman says:

      Nice — you went and outted your own damn self. ;>
      I’m with you on never fantasizing about my wedding. That proved to be a handicap when it came time to plan the event. People asked what kind of dress I had always imagined, what kind of cake, etc. Which is probably why I ended up with one of the first dresses I tried on (if not the first — don’t recall) and no cake at all.

      • Marianna says:

        Yeah, I bought one of the first dresses I tried on too — the main attraction was the price and the fact that it was used.

  28. Jennifer Footlik Zukerman says:

    (big grin)

  29. SLJ says:

    Good article. I once had a conversation with a man about this item. We were at work and someone offered him an invitation for him and his wife. He handed it back because the host used his wife’s maiden name.

    I asked him was he really that upset. He explained “if she wanted to keep her last name she shouldn’t have jumped at the chance to get married.” No, his wife is not barefoot and pregnant; she has a career as does he. But, he felt strongly that this was a sign of commitment to one another and he is only asking her to make this one particular sacrifice. I guess he paid for the wedding…

    As for me, I am getting married and I will take his name. But, not for my colleague’s reasons — for my own which are private and at this point in my life necessary.

  30. Dena Utne says:

    I would not have changed my name had I not found my original last name a continual source of major embarrassment. I used the traditional social norm as my loop hole for getting a new last name without causing the offense I would have probably caused had I just changed it without getting married.

  31. Cher Underwood Forsberg says:

    I chose to change mine because my husband-to-be asked. He also changed so much for me: moving *twice* for my job, leaving behind a city he loves; and taking on responsibility for my niece and nephew after my brother passed away. I am certain I got the better end of the deal.

  32. Dena Utne says:

    Now that I’ve read through more of others’ comments, I have a few more things to say:
    First of all, my pre-marital name was worse than Jennifer’s. It embarrasses me so much that I’m not even going to write what it was. And I have not inflicted it upon my children. Interestingly, I shocked both my mom and my fiance when I chose to take his name.
    I also hate being called ‘Mrs.’ I absolutely can’t tolerate it. It confuses some people immensely that I took my husband’s name but also want to get out a barf bag every time somebody calls me Mrs. But now that I live in Norway, nobody calls me Mrs. except for SAS (grrr). (Speaking of Norway, historically there have been some men who have taken their wives’ last names here.)
    And yes, I used the term ‘pre-marital’ name above. For years now, I have undertaken a one-woman campaign to eliminate the expression ‘maiden name’ from the English language. If you are unmarried and no longer a virgin, where does that leave you? If people thought about what ‘maiden’ means and substituted ‘virgin’ instead, I think a lot more folks would be appalled by the term.
    As for the Latin American custom somebody praised above, it is also quite sexist. People get their mom’s last names as their first last name, but it traditionally gets pushed further from use once they marry. And when a married woman gets ‘de husband’s last name’ added to hers, it means that she is ‘of’ his last name or basically that she belongs to him. I find the ‘de’ custom more sexist than that of taking one’s husband’s name without the ‘de’.

  33. I took my husband’s last name five years after we married. I did this primarily because we had gone through a rocky period, for which I was largely responsible, and I wanted to ally myself with him publicly to prove my commitment to our marriage. We had discussed the possibility of hyphenating or making up a new name for both of us, but he ultimately didn’t want to give up his last name. When I decided to do so, it was as a gift to him. Now that we have children, I am glad that we all have the same last name. Although you can explain that family members have different names, it still seems to set some people apart on a psychological level. I like being united as a family by our “family” name. I still use my maiden name as a middle name, particularly for professional purposes, and in truth, I still think of myself as more of a Vaillancourt, even though most people now know me as a McGrath.

  34. […] feminist, which is no surprise to those of you who have read some of my other posts, e.g. Women: What Is So Bad About Your Names? or Fashion Industry vs. Women.) But many women who wear burqas say that they freely chose to do so, […]

  35. Matthew Ivaliotes says:

    Late to the party, but adding another angle…

    Look at that last name of mine. I mean, really. I can’t possibly expect anyone to take that name. I won’t post my mom’s original surname, since that’s a ‘security question,’ but suffice it to say that it was an incredibly easy name. And now she’s an Ivaliotes. Doesn’t bother her at all. Honestly, I wouldn’t change my name to any future spouse’s name, either, but I’d sure consider taking the opportunity to change mine to something easier. 🙂

  36. James says:

    Tradition is not always a bad thing. It seems like “ditching” tradition is all the rave nowadays. Who cares about tradition? It’s a “relic” of the past people say.
    I’ll never take on a husband’s name, blah blah. Being married is for my wife and I celebrating one-ness together. The most important thing is not our separateness, it’s the opposite, it’s sharing everything in common, that’s how we think of it. It takes two to tango. Marriage is hard, because both partners have to give things up, but by by giving things up for one-another, and serving one-another, loving one-another, there is less “I”, and more “we”. As far back as I can go, there has not been any divorces in my family, I’m blessed. Traditions may change, but the essentials don’t. I’ve always been taught, that serving your spouse, and making her #1 is the most important thing. When these things like changing your name, not wearing a wedding ring, etc… become matters of debate, I think the focus is lost. Politicize a relationship, status, and turn things like this into issues of identity, and you are certain to cause division, not one-ness. Aim for a lifelong marriage, make decisions that will help you achieve that. Don’t throw away tradition just ‘because’. Make a decision together, in love, not with a rebellious spirit, but for the sake of the partnership. If your immediate stance is: “I will not do that”, without contemplating “doing it” for the sake of unity, I question motives. Inclinations in marriage should first be to give up things for our partner, that’s how love manifests itself. You can’t have 2 people lead in a dance, at the same time. But you can have 2 people lead in a dance, at different times, but it takes practice, and rhythm, and an understanding of what makes the other person tick. Whatever the decision is, is not as important. Make it together, and achieve a lifelong marriage. If you just want to rock the boat all the time, then at some point, the other person will fall overboard, and you’ll lose that person, because your focus was on rocking the other person, not loving the other person. Nobody wants to be taken for a perpetual ride. I don’t think anyone has that kind of fortitude. Take your spouses last name, or adopt yours, or create a new one, or have separate names, but make the decision together, for reasons that bring unity, not just ‘because’, or for the sake of NOT being traditional.

  37. Juliette says:

    I thought about changing my name for about a minute after marriage but was way too lazy to fill out the paperwork for something so insignificant. My husband’s family used to ask me if I would change my name someday. I finally told them , “Maybe… if I do something really terrible and my reputation gets trashed… I guess I could use it as a fresh start. Other than that, not likely.” They’ve stopped asking.

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