Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 13:57 UK

Three surnames for one person. Too many?

Shaun Wright-Phillips
Shaun Wright-Phillips, who added step-father Ian Wright's name to his own

By Chris Bowlby
BBC News

A German judge has refused a couple's request for a triple-barrelled surname. Once a relic of the aristocratic age, multiple surnames have a new lease of life.

The multiple surname, once glory of the European aristocracy - and our own royal family - seems to have lost its self-confidence. Germany's highest court has told a couple they cannot create a new triple-barrelled surname because it might make tracing the family line more difficult.

We're married and we want to show it
Hans-Peter Kunz-Hallstein

The couple has professional as well as personal reasons for wanting their new name. The wife, Frieda Rosemarie Thalheim, who has built up a dental practice under her own name, wants to keep that as part of her identity, while also linking herself formally to her new husband, Hans-Peter Kunz-Hallstein.

But the German authorities, from a government minister downwards, argue that "name chains" threaten to confuse identities.

As women assert their independence, and family relationships become more varied, so complex surnames may be coming back into fashion.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the last double-barrelled prime minister

Such names used to be just for the elite, the way in which top families advertised their rich heritage and titles.

The Habsburgs were European champions at this, with an ever-lengthening dynastic name listing all their possessions. It was doubtless a nightmare for official letter writers and toast-masters, but certainly proclaimed just how well-connected they were.

The British royal family used to do its bit for hyphenated hierarchy as part of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In 1917, however, rebranding was thought necessary due to anti-German feeling during World War One, and the royal name was simplified to Windsor. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser remarked waspishly that he was off to see a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Quadruple barrelled

But multi-barrelled identity has not died out in Britain. While Windsor remains the formal royal name, the present Queen has created a new double-barrelled surname - Mountbatten-Windsor - for her direct descendants.

Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurley Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, centre, on his millitary mission
Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurley Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, second left

Elsewhere among Britain's elite, the armed forces have always deployed multi-barrelled names in large numbers. Unforgettable in this tradition was Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurley Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, sent in 1939 as a special envoy to Moscow.

It sounds more like an elaborate and sinister code than a name.

And the Admiral was conspicuously unsuccessful as the Soviets opted for an alliance with Nazi Germany rather than the Britain of Admiral Drax (etc etc.)

Multiple surnames remain prominent in the British military. But in other areas of society they have lost prestige. Alec Douglas-Home was a brief exception as prime minister, swiftly succeeded by no-nonsense Wilson and Heath. Meanwhile the satirists went to work on posh identities, the Monty Python team in particular enjoying inventing upper class twits with bizarre and prolonged surnames.

A name of one's own

So is the multi-barrelled name in permanent decline? Certainly some who have inherited them, such as the explorer Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, seem to find it simpler to stick simply to Ranulph Fiennes.

Piers Morgan
Piers Pughe-Morgan, I presume

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson has done her best to make sure double-barrelled can still be "It". But Piers Morgan has decided he's got enough talent in the name department without reverting to Piers Pughe-Morgan.

In business too, the elaborate and ancient names once common in the City and the boardrooms are now joined by punchier identities from very different backgrounds. Sir Alan Sugar proves you can still fire people very effectively with just the one surname.

But even if its status value is dubious, the multi-barrelled name may have other modern uses. Shaun Wright-Phillips, a rare double-barrel among professional footballers, carries the surname of his stepfather Ian Wright.

As relationships change - with more children born outside marriage, and married women keen to keep their own surnames - the old single family surname often seems inappropriate.

Tara P-T
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, from friend of Prince Charles to tabloid fixture

Hugh Peskett, editor-in-chief of Burke's Peerage, says double-barrelled names are "being used rather more" by unmarried couples. As champion of the older traditions, with multiple names firmly linked to marriage, he regrets this trend.

But attitudes will continue to vary across societies and borders. Britain has always had a more relaxed approach towards what people call themselves. Some places, like Germany, want to keep tighter control. Cultural tradition vies with administrative demands in the computer age - multiple hyphens don't suit databases or identity cards.

But in places where multiple surnames are frowned upon, there could be a way of exacting revenge. The president of the German constitutional court who delivered this week's verdict is called Hans-Jurgen Papier. Double-barrelled first names - there is a whole new seam of identity to mine.


A selection of your comments appears below.

I was born with a double-barrelled surname. The first had 10 letters in and the second 12 letters. I had a very long surname. When I turned 18 I changed my name and now have a very simple, short last name which is a mix of both my previous surnames. Having a double-barrelled surname is NOT the way forward. It is horrible, you can never fit it onto school books and could only learn to spell it when your eight years old! I hated mine!
Sophie, Bristol

Prior to getting married, my wife (nee Burgess), expressed a preference to keep her own name and pass it on to any future children, either as a forename or surname. Even though I'd been Andrew Tupling for almost 24 years at the time, this change of name didn't really bother me (and still doesn't). Although it is generally expected, when getting married, that the woman should change her name rather than keep it, I think attitudes are changing. I think some thought should go into whether the two surnames 'fit' - I have seen some rather humorous examples. For brevity, at work, I'm generally always referred to as either Andrew BT or just ABT.
Andrew Burgess-Tupling, Pontefract, England

My mother's maiden name was Moody and she took my father's surname when she married missing the opportunity of becoming Mrs Moody Pratt. Therefore we were just a family of Pratts. I'm now married to a Wildman and have missed out on being a Moody Wildman Pratt.
D, Codsall

When I got married I didn't want a double-barrelled surname, but did want to acknowledge both 'identities'. One option is to change your name by deed poll incorporating your 'old' surname as a 'middle name'. That does away with the untidiness of the hyphen while still leaving something to posterity.
Catherine, Leicester

It depends on which country you originate from what association a double barrelled name brings. Where I come from (the Netherlands) women traditionally take on a double barrelled name when married [husband's name]-[own surname] and more recently men have the same option, adding their wife's name. It has nothing to do with aristocracy. Think also of Hispanic countries where people also have two surnames, one from their father's family and one from their mother's family. With people migrating from all over the world you come across more and more and many different traditions when it comes to surnames (and first names, I'm used to double barrelled first names and there is no association with class there). It's just that in England double barrelled names are associated with aristocracy, but there can be different meanings.
Dr M, UK

I must have been ahead of my time (not of titled lineage!) I gave both my children four names, my daughter who was born in Tabora Tanzania December 19th 1964, Carina Chantal Haliwell Owen. My son born in Somerset January 14th 1967, Adrian Richard Ambrose Owen.

I adopted my middle name and maiden name as part of my whole name after getting divorced in 1975.
Jacqueline Simone Ambrose, Maui Hawaii USA

Double-barrel names are no problem if they are pronounced as one name. My own is pronounced as Grayfo, like pillow. It's father and stepfather.
Michael JGR Gray-Fow, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

How about combining exotic binational multiple monikers; Our children carry Yrjö-Koskinen-Smith around with them - they seem to survive relatively unscathed.
Steve, London

How many people remember one of the stars of the Monty Python Classic upper class twit of the year? Gervaise Brook-Hampster... no one! Why? The competition included Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel. The name John Desmond Lewis, a 22-year-old student from Hayes in Greater London, changed his name by deed poll to!
Dr John C Bullas, Southampton UK

I found that when I made my decision to double barrel my name following my marriage public I met with a very mixed response of both amazement that I not only wanted to keep my maiden name, (Rump), but some who were openly totally against me performing such a kick to the teeth of tradition. All I have to say to any of these people is this, Rump was my name for 32 years, I kept it because I like it. What surprised me the most was how hard it was to explain my name over the telephone, I assumed that people knew what a hyphen was, I was wrong. The man who insisted on referring to me as Mrs Rump-Python-Goodrich (I'm sure he was just being silly because he asked what my husband's problem was for letting me do that) and the credit card company staff who just refuse to call me by my full name no matter how many times I explain it to them and refer to me as Mrs Erm... Erm...
Lisa Rump-Goodrich, Winsford Cheshire

The double-barrelled surname, once considered a badge of superior status, is now much more likely to indicate birth out of wedlock. Poor old Cholmondley-Warner!
Adam Williamson, Shrewsbury

I have a doubled barrelled surname and as my mum stood up for what she believed in - that the woman should not have to forgo their surname for the man's - I would like to do the same. I would also like to keep the Jackson-Horner family name alive. However as I would like to take my husband's name as a sign of our marriage, it is not right for multi-barrelled surnames to be refused!
Stephanie Jackson-Horner, Ashover



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