Look, There’s Tiggy Legge-Bourke and Edward Innes-Ker!

Why do so many well-to-do Brits have hyphenated last names?

Prince William and Kate Middleton

With Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton coming up on April 29, Brits are wondering who will receive invitations to the exclusive reception at Buckingham Palace. It’s against royal policy to release the names of the lucky 300 ahead of time, but leaks indicate that the VIP docket is dripping with hyphens. Yes, hyphens—like the one in Tiggy Legge-Bourke (that’s Will’s former nanny) or Edward Innes-Ker (Kate’s sister’s roommate). Not to mention Natalie Hicks-Lobbecke, Alicia Fox-Pitt, and Annabel Glynne-Percy. Why do so many British aristocrats have double-barreled names?

To show off their lineage. Hyphenation is currently associated with the gender equality movement, but it’s been going on for hundreds of years in upper-crust circles, mostly to preserve storied or illustrious names that might otherwise be lost through marriage. Two equally eminent families might also fuse their names to show off their intertwining lines. A lot of hyphens now gracing elite circles in the United Kingdom are simply inherited—Edward Innes-Ker, for instance, takes his name from his father, Guy Innes-Ker.

In 1905, a genealogist named William Phillimore Watts Phillimore published an index of name changes in the United Kingdom between 1760 and 1901. Today, all you need to change your name is a document called a deed poll that is registered in the English High Court. But in Phillimore’s day, you either asked the royal family or, where the transfer of titles like Duke or Viscount was involved, sought an act of Parliament. Phillimore looked at (among others) nobles who had petitioned the crown for a license to hyphenate. Some were following instructions in an ancestor’s will: To keep the estate intact in the absence of a male heir, a patriarch might demand that any man who married into the family graft his wife’s last name onto his own. (The more illustrious name goes second, as in George Spencer-Churchill or James Hawkins-Whitshed.) Or a husband would hyphenate voluntarily if he came from humbler roots and wanted to signal his arrival in upper-class society.

In the 19th century, the practice of hyphenation spread among the bourgeoisie. Upwardly mobile Brits may have thought that double-barreled surnames—so called to evoke the gentlemanly pastime of hunting—would win them respect. And in 1862, Parliament upheld the right of any Englishman to call himself whatever he liked, making it easier for people to change their names for more whimsical reasons. (Phillimore lists 93 Smiths who took on additional last names via hyphen, presumably, he says, because they wanted to be known by something “more euphonious and infrequent.”)

Historically, English royals did not have last names—they were known by their “houses,” or dynasties, like Tudor, York, or Lancaster. But in 1917, George V broke with tradition and adopted the surname Windsor. This move allowed George to retire his father’s unwieldy House affiliation, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which seemed treasonously Germanic. The descendents of George V now belong to the House of Windsor, and until 1960, they all bore the surname Windsor as well. In 1960, Queen Elizabeth decided to honor her husband, Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh, by requiring that their direct issue use a new moniker: Mountbatten-Windsor. This means that Will, Kate, and any of their children will be Mountbatten-Windsors, too.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron caused a stir in 2009 when he implored Tories who were running for Parliament to dispose of their extra names. “Dave’s Tory De’toff” was viewed as an effort to diffuse the Conservative Party’s aura of privilege. But it gained no traction among the candidates. In fact, one of them, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, had earlier taken the opposite tack, adding a third sobriquet to plain old Wilfred Jones. He lost his 2010 election. *

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Explainer thanks Bruce A. Metcalf and Dr. Charles E.F. Drake of the Augustan Society, professor Arianne Chernock of Boston University, and Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogists in London.

Correction, April 13, 2011: The article incorrectly stated that Mr. Emmanuel-Jones changed his name directly before the 2010 election. In fact, he had done so earlier. (Return to the corrected sentence.)