BFTP: Hyphenating – who goes first?

We’ve been discussing arguments that couples have over surnames intermittently on our open threads lately, and blue milk just posted a fascinating quote from an MRA about those evil feminist hags and their surname agenda, so reposting this examination of historical hyphenating tradition seems timely. First published in 2006: this version has been lightly edited.

So Brangelina’s baby has been born – Shiloh Nouvelle Jolie-Pitt. There is undoubtedly going to be a lot of sneering at the choice of personal names, but today I’m looking at the family name.

Jolie and Pitt had already decided on the hyphenation when he decided to petition to co-adopt Maddox and Zahara, Jolie’s two adopted children. And the order they’ve chosen is what is seen as usual – the woman’s name first, the man’s name last. This has become so customary that when my husband and I chose to hyphenate our surnames for the kids with his name first and my name last it was considered odd. I later found that at least one of our acquaintance wrote a letter to my mother-in-law where added to the litany of complaints about me was that by ordering the surnames thus I was belittling my husband (all those people who tell you that you shouldn’t read other people’s letters are right you know, even if you’re doing it as part of a deceased estate clearup).

Here Lies The Nearly-Departed, Seldom-Understood, Soon-To-Be-Forgotten HYPHENNow, we actually chose to do it that way around because we thought the surname combination sounded better that way – a purely aesthetic/euphonic choice. Also, there was no real traditional reason for us to do otherwise, despite what that acquaintance and others since may think.

When hyphenation of surnames first began in Europe, it was a sign of alliances between two noble families of equally ancient name, perhaps with one of them limited to a sole daughter as heiress, and by combining surnames the wife’s family name was kept alive – in these cases the wife’s surname was usually secondary, as either her family had demonstrated a lack of reproductive vigour, or if the two families were considered otherwise equal then of course the man’s surname would come first. e.g. the Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe family, of Birmingham England, have twice had a man’s surname placed pre-eminent to the woman’s – first when a Gough married a Calthorpe heiress (1776), and then over a century later (1898) when an Anstruther married a Gough-Calthorpe heiress.

The most impressive accumulation of aristocratic surnames (in Britain anyway) would have to be the quintuple-barrelled family name of the extinguished line of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos (the title has long since been subsumed into the crown, which is why the Queen’s got Buck House for her London palace). Perhaps they were fatally bowed down by the weight of labelling all their stuff with Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville?

Where the hyphenating phenomenon became most common however was in the period of less-well-off-than-previous-generations aristocrats/gentry marrying their daughters off to nouveau riche industrialists of no breeding, and in order to emphasise the high status of the bride, the husband named Smith/Smythe/Brown/Carpenter/etc would hyphenate his proletarian surname with his wife’s maiden name (because obviously the husband shedding his name for hers was unthinkable). Because the bride’s family was socially superior in these cases, her name came before his in the combination (this was also why “double-barrelled” names were so widely mocked from this period onwards – people who were “really” Smiths and Browns were “putting on airs” of nobility). This was seen far more often in recent generations than the aristocratic-alliance equivalent, and has come to be considered the norm.

So, if one examines the history of double-barrelled surnames in full, by choosing to place my husband’s name before mine in our children’s surname combination, I could be considered to honour his family’s social status above my own (rather than the belittling of which I was accused), were it not for the fact that our choice was not class-based at all. As we considered our families equal on the social ladder, neither of us felt that the kids would have their place in society imperilled by the placement of surname, so we just went with what sounded best.

Mr Tog even offered to not only have the kids use my surname alone, but to change his surname likewise (he’d never liked the one he had). That seemed like too much trouble for us, so we just lumbered the kids with a hyphen instead, and will wait to see what they decide to do if they end up partnered with another hyphenated person.

There is a lovely example of this in an British 20th century interbellum novel, Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson, where the genteel Miss Mapp eventually through much effort lands in late middle age the respectable charms of Major Benjamin Flint. Not wanting to give up her own family name, the couple decide to hyphenate, and no-one in town is much surprised when they characteristically end up as the Mapp-Flints and not the Flint-Mapps (who were the Flints, after all?).

I have no idea whether Pitt and Jolie made a euphonic decision, a faux-traditional man’s-name-goes-last decision, or a conscious decision that as second generation celebrity the Jolie outranked the Pitt. But anyone else considering hyphenation shouldn’t be constrained by feeling that the man’s name always ought to be last – if that combination sounds like crap, for the love of Invisible Pink Unicorns, don’t do it.

Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism, history, language, parenting, relationships

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26 replies

  1. That’s a really interesting history of hyphenation, Tigtog!
    I think it’ll be interesting to see how same-sex partnerships work with these ideas and what principles guide those choices. My partner and I have my name first, hers second, for the sound of it.
    Of course, my homophobic/transphobic in-laws *hate* that we’ve done it. My using “their” name at all is a mortal insult, apparently.

  2. I hadn’t known the hyphenated name had such a history!
    Anecdotally, I had a friend get married who chose to hyphenate her name to her spouse’s, which could have ended up quite amusing given that hers is Burrows and his Fox. (Even their surnames agreed they were destined for one another, apparently.)

  3. I wonder if there were influences on the rest of Europe from Spanish naming conventions (derived, ultimately, from Roman customs?). In Spain and among the Romans, double-barrels came/come as standard, although the Romans were a bit more flexible and let you blend the names in various orders.

  4. Fascinating.

    Watching kiddie tv this morning I noticed the writer of an episode was Katie Swash, and I wondered whether she has spent her whole life looking for a Buckle to unite with.

  5. My impression is that the Hispanic custom is to have the mother’s name last – at least that’s how some friends of mine (father Ecuadoran, mother Anglo) did it, with no hint that they considered they were breaking with convention.

  6. Oooh, thanks for this. Very interesting.
    *If* (pleasepleasepleaseplease) I get to give kids a hyphenated name, they’ll probably be Mylast-Hislast or Mylast Hislast (no hyphen), mainly for aesthetic reasons. His name starts with a vowel and sounds awful and/or tongue twisty with a lot of the first names we like.
    I think he prefers no hyphen aesthetically but with that there’s the risk that Mylast will be read as a middle name and therefore dropped.
    If I get to have my name in the last name box on the birth certificate at all I’ll be very happy – first or second, hyphen or no hyphen.

  7. Would it look weird if you just ran the two names together Alien Tea?

  8. Mindy – I think so. Mine ends in “son” (which kind of annoys me, but it is still my name!). Maybe if his was capitalized. We’ll probably go through the details of how to do it later anyway… right now I’m still just hoping that my name won’t end up relegated to the “middle name” space.

  9. Alien Tea: have you considered a name that borrows syllables etc from each of your names? I’ve discussed that we ended up using my surname on Hoyden (because we ended up having a conversation in which it emerged that my husband didn’t care a jot), but that was the solution I was playing with for a while.
    I don’t know a lot about the creation of surnames in English or other UK cultures much, or the morphing of them into new surnames! I’d be interested to know how a mash of parental surnames fits with historical precedent.

  10. Yeah, we’ve discussed everything – believe me, I offered up every possible scenario except his name only. He wouldn’t agree to any of them. It didn’t come out until recently that his main reason for not agreeing to *any* compromise at all (mine as middle is the furthest we got) is because he’s worried it’ll make his family resent me. So we’ll talk to them closer to the time (maybe when we plan to start trying to conceive) and find out if that’s really the case and if there’s anything we can do to placate them – other than write me out completely from the last name, though it still might come down to that.

  11. PS, Mary, thanks for writing that piece – I’ve read it a number of times in the last few months… It helps make me feel like I’m not being totally ridiculous not being able to easily agree to something people do without even thinking all time time.

  12. So, if just hypothetically, I assume we’d be hyphenating and he likes the idea of only my surname, what does that make us?

  13. This whole surname thing really can be an unexploded bomb waiting to go off. I took my husband’s surname for a few reasons, one of which was so that I could prove that I really had hooked a husband to all the people I went to school with (yeah issues but I was young). I also think that it would have become a ‘thing’ with both our families if I hadn’t. Not a big thing, just a little niggle, the type of thing that comes up at family gatherings after a few rounds of alcohol have been consumed. Plus, I wasn’t really feminist then. *shrugs*
    Giving the kids my surname and not his would have been seen as excluding him from our little family, maybe that I wasn’t committed to our relationship, gods forbid maybe even that they weren’t his (despite the fact that they are pretty much mini hims). All the crap that goes along with the assumption that mothers will do everything including give up their job, name, career etc.
    Double hyphening our names just would have looked ridiculous because of the names, we thought about it for a bit and then just fell about laughing. It would have looked like we were trying to be posh and failing miserably. [Percival-Johnstone (not our real names but you get the picture)]. If however, we married and had kids now and had more compatible names I think that is the option I would go for surname-surname just so people knew that I am proud of my original surname too and think it is important. I think our families could have lived with that. Probably.

  14. Since I’m not pseudonymous here I can’t talk too much about family impacts, but they did happen, although not to a permanently relationship damaging degree.

  15. I’ve discussed my red-tape adventures* before, but they really have affected my ideas about what I’d do if I ever got married.
    I love my name as it stands, but if my intended wanted to change his surname too, I would consider it, depending on the aesthetic result. Either sticking his onto the end of mine, or subbing out the start of my current, long English surname and keeping the suffix – it’s a bit like Alien Tea’s “-son” suffix, but longer – and replacing it with a bit of his. I would not change my name if I was the only one making changes.
    I’m fairly certain I don’t want kids, so I don’t have to worry about that. Although, I do love the sound of my mother’s original surname as a first name for a girl, though (it’s Spanish for “prayer” AFAIK).
    *I was named after my mother, so I use my first middle name as a first name for everyday, non-gov’t, non-medical use. My second middle name is my mother’s original surname, and getting it back onto forms and official correspondence has been difficult.

  16. My professional name is Bri his-last
    My legal name is Birthname my last-his last
    My son’s name is first name my last-his last
    My daughter’s name is first name his last.
    Son was first name my last until Husband and I got married and then Son decided he wanted to hyphenate. We tossed around hypenating daughter’s name but it sounded better with her first name to just use his last name. Also because my husband and daughter are Aboriginal and we thought it important to preserve that heritage (via the last name, even though it isnt a traditional sounding Aboriginal last name it is still a recognised Aboriginal name in our local area).
    I have gone through a few names in my time. I was birth first name birth last name. Then birth first name adopted last name. Then birth first name first-husband’s last name. Then back to birth first name adopted last name. Then birth first name hypenated surname when I remarried. As I said earlier, now in my work and online I use chosen first name and his last name (because I like the sound of it) but legally I am still birth first name hypenated last name.
    If you read all that and understood, I am proud! lol

  17. I think that even if your kids don’t end up with another hyphenated person, they may not be able to hyphenate again. My partner’s last name is hyphenated, mine isn’t, but together the result would be both unwieldy and ridiculous. Fortunately for us, both our last names consist of English words for outdoor places, so for our kids we would have several options of syllabic pick and choose that would be okay. (Neither of us changed our names upon marriage, as neither of us really wanted to.)

  18. was that by ordering the surnames thus I was belittling my husband

    How can you even begin to argue with such a lack of self-awareness of a failure of logic?

  19. Love this post, so fascinating. Thanks tig tog.

  20. My husband has his mother’s maiden name as his middle name. Since his mom was an only child, it let the name be handed down. I doubt his parents ever considered hyphenating, even though it would have made more sense, considering they wanted to preserve her name.
    My daughter’s friend-her parents decided to take a completely new last name, rather than use either of theirs.
    I considered hyphenating when I got married, decided it’d be simpler to take his. And I confess I wondered what would happen if our Jones-Brown offspring (not our names) married a Smith-Wilson? I honestly didn’t have strong feelings about which name we used, so I followed the path of least resistance.
    I did give my daughter my middle name as her first name. I’d always loved it, and if a boy can be named after his father, why can’t a girl be named after her mother? I wouldn’t have used either of our first names for offspring. Simply because to me that could be awkward in conversation, we’d nickname them anyway, so why bother? But that’s just my own personal quirk.
    If my daughter someday gets a significant other, I’ll accept her choice, and if anyone fusses I’ll cheerfully blow a raspberry their way.

  21. We are not married but even if we were we wouldn’t have changed either of our surnames. I know quite a lot of couples who’ve done that actually.
    Our children’s surnames are hyphenated. It seems to me double-hyphenation is only an issue if they want to change their names when they settle down in the distant future. They may be perfectly happy to keep their surnames, like their dad and I have.
    I wish extended families would get their sticky beaks out of these issues! My mother wanted me to get married as a favour to her. I pointed out that if marriage is such a big deal it isn’t really the sort of thing you should be doing only as a favour to someone else, even your beloved mother!

  22. Thanks for the history lesson tigtog (I’m worried that sounds sarcastic; it’s not).
    But as Mindy put it, the whole question can be such a time-bomb. With bureaucratic crap added to the family crap as well. I know at least one married friend who took her husband’s name purely because of the number of hoops she found she’d have to jump through if she didn’t.

  23. @SunlessNick – can i ask where your friend lived? I was under the impression that Aus was like NZ in that if you get married and want to change your name officially you still have to opt to do that, rather than opt-out, as it were.

    • Sunless Nick doesn’t live in Aus, Tamara. I also suspect he may be talking about related bureaucratic hoops like continually having to prove to various officials that you really are married if you haven’t changed your name, rather than any legal requirement to opt out of it.

  24. Thanks tigtog. I guess in that location if being married with different surnames is bad enough, being in a de facto relationship must be even worse.
    In NZ we’ve been fortunate enough to find it no trouble to be de facto and with different surnames. Some of that will come from the privilege of not having to use state assistance for things that require evidence of being in a relationship, but a lot will be down to NZ culture being quite liberal about non-marriage. I read recently that half of children born at the moment are to mothers who are not legally married. it was 43% in 2001 and 14% in 1971. I find that fascinating!

  25. What tigtog said. I’m a Brit (and so is the friend in question); in theory, the name is supposed to be a simple choice here, but it’s reckoned a woman will change hers on autopilot, and if she doesn’t, it will take two or three extra tries to get anything official done at all.

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