I refer to someone whose family name is, for example Fortescue-Smith; or Birchall Hughes. Sometimes they are hyphenated, sometimes not. But they are known in Britain as 'double-barrelled'.

One senses that they must be growing in incidence, as increasing numbers of mothers who are not married to the father of their children, as well as married women, decide to include their own family name as part of their children's names.

Is the attitude of society to such names changing in any way?

4 Answers 4


It seems "double surname" is more popular than "double-barrelled surname" in the US:

Is the attitude of society to such names changing in any way?

Well, those two countries have different starting points. The use of double- and other compound-surnames among Spanish speakers, and those from pre-Columbian tribes is very different to those among British, and they are more often found in the US than the UK, as are plenty of other cultures with different approaches to surnames. In turn, since there are lots of different approaches taken to surnames, there is less need for new immigrants to change their approach to surnames to match that of the country the immigrate to.

As you note, there is an increase in people who would themselves have been given simple single patronym as a surname to give their children a double matrinym-patronym surname, and this happened in the US earlier than in Britain and Ireland.

From the other direction, the US didn't really have a sense of a "real double-barrel name" among the aristocracy because they don't have an aristocracy, while the British had. A couple of decades ago, having a double-barrel surname in Britain that wasn't one of an old family might make someone seem like a pseud to some (aping the aristocracy but not being an aristocrat), but these days that attitude would be rare—nobody using such a name cares about the aristocratic history, and anyone who still cares realises that nobody else does.

  • +1 for a comprehensive answer. Historically it is misleading to speak of 'aristocracy' in the case of Britain, since that particular class was tiny in number. (unlike in France before the Revolution where there were countless thousands of minor ones). In fact I would have said double-barrelling was traditionally a practice of the upper-bourgeoisie. It often resulted out of complicated family relationships and matters of inheritance.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:22
  • Most I can think of (which isn't very many [and honestly none, they're all in my head as "your man" and I'd have to look up the actual double-name!]) are of peers. The bourgeois habit on the other hand being precisely what some would once have looked down on as not being "real" double-barrel names, when people were more likely to care about such things.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:30
  • You need to rerun this checking the Microsoft version of the spelling, with only one L. Many younger Americans have given in to the temptation to do whatever Microsoft tells them, and somebody there thinks it has to be double-barreled surname, with just one L. Looks kinda nekkid to me that way, but I’m not a kid. I’d write double-barrelled myself.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 2:16
  • @tchrist I did and found zeros
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 9:02
  • I tried the same thing and got the same thing, but wasn’t sure whether I trusted it, since zero is a suspicious number. I thought perhaps I’d done something wrong. But compare double-barreled/barrelled shotguns I suppose.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 23:54

I think it depends on what phenomenon you are referring to, but we call the sort of thing where the bride or groom or both stick their surnames together a hyphenated surname. The term is roughly as popular as double surname in American English.

If you mean the practice that's been going on for a long time in several European cultures, I think if we Americans do know a word for it we would call it a double surname. But I qualify that because many people are not familiar with the practice.

  • The problem is that it's actually several very different practices that have been going on for a long time in different European cultures!
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:37
  • Yes exactly. Many Americans (especially white and African Americans that have been here a while) are not aware of these practices. More recent immigrants from cultures that practice double-surnaming surely know what it is.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:44
  • @vimaior -- No, we Mericans have long been aware of such practices, ever since Groucho Marx educated us years ago: youtube.com/watch?v=C0mucg6nN_g
    – Jay Elston
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:55

To answer your title question, we call them hyphenated names (if they are) or last names (if they are not). Hyphenated names are, in my experience, declining, being replaced with women either keeping their maiden surnames as middle names (e.g. Sarah Kennedy Gunn) or keeping their maiden names and forgoing altogether the husband's name (Sarah Kennedy). A percentage (not the majority) are giving their children their maiden names as their middle names. Sarah Kennedy Gunn likely writes out her entire name, but her child Michael will write his as Michael K. Gunn, and her daughter will likely identify herself as Hope Gunn Johnson when she marries.

If 'increasing numbers of mothers are not marrying the father of their children' how can double names be growing? Unmarried mothers have an incentive to either give their child the father's surname (for child support and legitimacy reasons) or to avoid doing so (when custody might be disputed and there is no interest in child support.) But these mothers rarely hyphenate their child's surname.

I think we're on a 20 or so year lag time following the ups and downs of feminism. As it's increasing again now in the US, there will likely be some new change in 20 years or so, probably women will no longer be taking their husband's surnames at all is my guess.

  • The issues concerning support and custody are much the same in Britain. But we are not quite as inclined to use surnames as 'middle' names as are Americans. And the quoted middle initial idea like 'John F. Kennedy', is not much adopted. However some couples create the double-barrelled effect for their children. A number of women, particularly in professional occupations where their name is known to clients, e.g.lawyers, academics etc, simply keep their maiden or previous surname when they marry. This is irrespective of what names the children may carry. (C'Fwd)
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 7:39
  • B'Fwd But I am quite interested as to the circumstances in which people will try and appear 'posh'. There is no doubt that the double-barrel is seen as 'posh'. Which method is 'posh' in America?
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 7:44
  • Yes, double-barrelled names used to be seen as 'posh' in the UK. If a landed family had no son, the daughter's husband might add her name to his to keep a historic name alive. In recent decades, though, 'ordinary' people have started combining surnames for other reasons. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 10:42

In the part of the country I live in, frankly it probably isn't done enough to merit a name. Women are simply expected to take their husband's last name. Some people (like my sister) keep their last name, but that is viewed as very radical.

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