I found this answer by John Hanna which implies that the practice originated with the British aristocracy or 'upper-bourgeoisie' as @WS2 dubs them. This makes sense on a hereditary-rule/feudalism perspective where wealth and prestige were major points among families of the ruling class. It is easy to imagine the negotiation of a marriage could include a clause for a hyphenated surname for the newlyweds.

From a modern perspective, this looks an awful lot like marketing or brand management, where the bride's family has to protect their trademark to prevent their brand from being diluted.

I would like to know some of the additional history of this practice. Which family is the first recorded to use hyphenated names? Is the history of their decision documented? Is the practice actually adopted from another language or culture?

Also, at what point did a hyphenated name come to distinguish the individual over the family unit? Stated differently, when did hyphenating your name become popular across all segments of society? I'm guessing this is closely related to the women's liberation movement and civil rights movements in the USA, but I don't have a source for that.

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    This is not an answer, but I just thought I'd mention Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache.
    – tobyink
    Mar 26, 2014 at 18:12
  • Surnames in Britain mostly date from the 12th and 13th centuries. This Wiki article is perhaps a good a place as any to start.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_name
    – WS2
    Mar 26, 2014 at 18:48
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    Welcome to everyone who has followed this question to Genealogy.SE! Since it originated on English.SE, should this question have the phrase 'in English?' added to the title, or should we address naming conventions in other cultures as well?
    – Jan Murphy
    Mar 27, 2014 at 3:21
  • @JanMurphy Cerberus' answer has made it clear blended surnames reach across language and cultures. I think the discuss is better suited to an all-in-one place, but if Genealogy.SE typically divides things regionally, I can edit up the question to suit that procedure.
    – Patrick M
    Mar 27, 2014 at 3:54
  • @PatrickM -- because English has obligatory number, the question as written contains a hidden assumption that there is a single origin for this usage, which might not be the case. If you are talking about all cases where families have more than one surname, that is certainly not the case; in addition, each type of usage may have multiple origins.
    – Jan Murphy
    Mar 27, 2014 at 4:36

3 Answers 3


You shouldn't look at the phenomenon as originally "a double surname", but rather as having several surnames.

There are many ways and reasons for one to acquire a second or third surname. England was in many ways not that much different from the Continent, I believe. In Mediaeval times, one could, for example, be lord of both Aragon and Castile, and use the name "Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile" in official correspondence (although the higher the rank, the more names one usually had and has). Prepositions are still used, like the famous German "von und zu", theoretically indicating that one came from a certain area and/or rules over it, and still resides there; "von und zu Franckenstein" is short for "von Franckenstein und zu Frankenstein". Or one could be known as "of Bavaria", but of a cadet branch residing at Heidelberg, and call oneself "Henry of Bavaria Heidelberg". This could later be shortened to "Henry Bavaria Heidelberg". The use of a specific spelling or composition of one's name was not important in the Middle Ages, not like now.

An important reason to add a second "barrel" to the name of a commoner is to prevent the name of one's mother's family from dying out. In Dutch law, this is still the only situation in which one is legally allowed to add a second name to one's name. I suspect that this is also behind many of the well known English double-barelled names that are old but not noble (or were only recently ennobled). (My mother's (non-noble) family got their second barrel when the name of some great-great-grandmother was about to go extinct. This was under the Napoleonic occupation, whose laws forbade adding names; so the son was officially entered into the register as having his mother's name as one of his first names, later to be insidiously turned into a surname.)

In modern times, these double or triple or quadruple names have been formalised. Conventions have been established about e.g. hyphenation, varying across Europe. In Holland, double-barrelled names are never hyphenated; a hyphenated name is always that of a married woman and not inheritable (I'm sure there exceptions, though, as there always are). In Germany, double-barrelled names are normally hyphenated, I believe. Practice in England seems to vary. A double-barrelled surname is now legally treated as together being a single name in most of Europe (Iberia is of course different), regardless of hyphens or spaces.

One "barrel" is normally considered the "core" of the name: most people I know use only the core barrel in informal situations, such as when introducing oneself at a party.

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    This answer has made it more clear that I was wrong: The question is off-topic for ELU. I didn't even know there was a genealogy site. Excellent answer! I would love to see citations on the Dutch and Napoleonic laws forbidding second surnames.
    – Patrick M
    Mar 26, 2014 at 21:11
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    @PatrickM: Modern Dutch law just forbids any surname change, with a few exceptions, extinction being one. I'll try to find out more about the Napoleonic law: I just read that in a book about our family history.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 26, 2014 at 22:32
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    Another scenario (which applies to villages in Transylvania, which I research) is using double names to distinguish families with the same original (single word) surname: example "Paul[-]Binder".
    – bgwiehle
    Mar 27, 2014 at 12:42
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    A search of Genealogy.SE will also turn up several questions concerning "dit" (called) names, another case where families with a very common surname take on a alias which is a place name to distinguish themselves. Common in France, New France (i.e. Louisiana, French Canada, etc.) and Scotland. francogene.com/quebec/ditnames.php In the case of "dit" names the alias replaces or alternates with the original surname. See my answer to genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/4079/… for more links to references.
    – Jan Murphy
    Mar 27, 2014 at 15:49

Further to the above Spain still adds the mothers surname to the childs given name. They have the concept of first and second surnames, these are not hyphenated but are quoted in official documents. This makes genealogical research a little easier in that you always know what the mothers maiden surname was, it is the 1st surname that is passed on not both.

  • In the Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_naming_customs the article says (without citation) that people coming from the Hispanic convention sometimes hyphenate their names when filling out forms in English-dominant countries to make up for the fact that there is only one space for one surname. There are also examples of cases where both elements (father's surname and mother's surname) are hyphenated.
    – Jan Murphy
    Mar 27, 2014 at 15:44

Quite often too when an aristocratic woman was not sure who the father was she would incorporate both names into the name of the child.

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    Hi, welcome to G&FH.SE. Do you have any source for your assertion that would show cases where that was done? You can edit your answer by using the edit link underneath your answer. If not, don't be alarmed if we convert your post to a comment. See the tour and the help center center for more information about how the site works.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 21, 2016 at 22:59

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