Why are hyphenated names a sign of upper-class status in Britain?

In the U.S., if a person has a hyphenated last name – e.g., “Thomas Brown-Brzesinski” – we assumed that his or her parents were feminists, and hyphenated the child’s last name in preference to the old and sexist custom of giving the child the father’s name only.

But when I read literature, or watch TV or movies, set in the U.K., it seems a hyphenated name – e.g., “Sabrina Mulholland-Jjones” (from a Red Dward episode) – implies that the holder of the name is of the nobility, or at least the gentry. Why is that?

Sorry, that’s Red DwarF.

When you’re the product of good breeding, why not take advantage of the opportunities provided by both Mummy and Daddy’s families?

Posted by Tengu:

You seem to be implying that in Britain, people customarily get to choose their own last names, or at least the form of their names. But aren’t (most) Brits born with their names, just like Yanks?

Also from a parody standpoint is Monty Python’s “Upperclass Twit of the Year” contest, featuring Nigel Incubator-Jones, Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, Gervaise Brook-Hamster, and Oliver St. John-Mollusc.

But BrainGlutton has a good point, as does Tengu. You think Pamela Anderson Lee chose this name from fixation on feminist equality? No, it was because Pamela Anderson is a known commodity with some weight and swing in Hollywood. (Oops, bad metaphor.) Pamela Lee would lose the same kind of firm familiarity, she wouldn’t have the same box office heft. (Oops, there it went again.)

Also try

this, the first relevant link I came across, about heraldry, found here. Google can undoubtedly turn up a more reliable source than Geocities, but I didn’t look too hard.



I dunno why, but it seems to be true. The spouse has a hyphenated last name (maiden name-my last name), and has gotten reactions from people who automatically assumed that she had some sort of aristocratic background.

Don’t you want to point out the tie if you are in line to inherit a peerage or castle? Women can do that now, can’t they? If at some point you’re going to be Lady ___ and not use your husband’s name at all, why not start with it.

In some case (no cite just now sorry , cos I am half asleep)it can be because some posh family or other does not want its name to be completely lost, and might make inheritance dependent upon the newly married couple, or the heir on reachin majority, to add name X to the existing name Y.

And some of these conglomerate names come about due to a convenient marriage between aristo (posh but poor) and nouveau riche (made money in the dreaded “trade” - no post history but a handy amount of filthy clucre.

aha - I knew I could find a famous-ish example.

This refers to the late queen mother.


  • The ancestral home, Glamis Castle was given to the Lyon family in 1372. The ninth Earl married an heiress Mary Eleanor Bowes of County Durham whose father’s fortune was built on coal mining. The tenth Earl took the surname Bowes- Lyon.

btw - I suppose you all know why the queen mother (as was) is like a chocolate egg? cos they both spent Easter in a box,

My understanding is that in days-of-old when a woman of social-standing marries a man of not-so-social-standing and the womans surname was tacked on to prevent the womans surname being lost.


I have just finished reading a book about Denys Finch Hatton of " Out OF Africa " fame and he always insisted that his name was spelt without the hyphen. This is a family tradition dating back two hundred years and the present family members still stick to this rule. The book says " …the combination of names was not effected by other legal process than the decision of the family ( which would be legally valid ) in which case it would be in the power of the family to vary the hyphenation from time to time ."

The book is " Silence Will Speak " by Errol Trzebinski.

Posted by Rayne Man:

Now, that is very interesting . . . because it implies that even without the hyphen, a two-part last name can be passed down the generations as a single unit. That’s not done in the States, so far as I know. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt would be presumed to be a person with one last name, “Schmidt,” and two middle names, “Jacob” and “Jingleheimer.” He would be listed in the phone book under “S,” not “J,” and his children would inherit the name “Schmidt,” but not “Jingleheimer,” unless he specified that in filling out the birth certificate. On the other hand, if his name were spelled John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt, he would be listed under “J” and his children would automatically inherit the name “Jingleheimer-Schmidt.”

As the aforementioned Andrew Lloyd Webber (son of William Lloyd Webber and brother of Julian Lloyd Webber) would demonstrate, titles notwithstanding.

There’s also the reason, ‘it sounds good’, like when Mr Pine wed Miss Coffin…