Hyphenated last names

This entry was posted by on Monday, 25 August, 2008 at

Someone at work asked me today about how I liked having a hyphenated family name, because she was thinking of doing it herself. My reaction: BIG mistake, don’t do it.

I seriously regret hypenating my last name, because it creates an endless source of confusion.

  • When people ask you for your name, it takes ten times longer to explain, and always requires spelling it out and stressing the hyphen. Over the phone, it’s even more painful.
  • It tends to break computer systems. They hate hyphens. They hate spaces. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, computers just smash the two last names together, often truncating them anyway, since the combined last name is often ‘too long’.
  • Even when people see it printed correctly, it confuses them. If they see your printed name as “Benjamin Apple-Banana”, many will just call you “Benjamin Apple” or “Benjamin Banana”. It’s like their brain just can’t handle the concept of a double last-name, so it automatically drops one. Which means the whole romantic (or political) point of “encompassing both names” is basically lost on the public.

Really, I would gladly have changed my last name to my wife’s if I could go back in time. It would have made life so much easier.

And don’t forget: if you’re male and thinking of changing your last name, be ready for some serious institutionalized sexism!

16 Comments to Hyphenated last names

  1. jackr says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Some other friends of mine resolved this silliness (with more foresight than I ever had, I can tell you that!) by exchanging middle names as well as last names (but no hyphens). So, to illustrate, “Ann Babel Caruso” married “David Ernesto Fish,” and they became “Ann and David Babel Fish” (sorry 😉 No hypherisms.

    As for the institutional sexism thing: they had a lot less trouble over that than you did, though there were a few stories. Mebbe it depends on the state wherein you live, or something.

  2. Aviv Ben-Yosef says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I hear ya!
    Though my last name is quite regular here in Israel (it simply has 2 words), it can be a pain.

  3. Sam says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I agree with you entirely that it is silly (and sexist) that women can change their names easily when men can’t. I didn’t change my name in part because I thought it would be a pain, even as a woman — with the result that some assume I’m not married to my husband at all.

    The other great debate is Ms. vs. Mrs. Am I “Mrs” Maidenname? Or Ms Maidenname and Mrs. Marriedname? I just tell everyone to call me by my first name. (Soon, I’ll be able to tell them to call me Dr., I hope.) At the same time, I don’t get offended if my husband’s friends assume I share a surname with him.

    Many women talk about using their Maidenname “professionally” and their marriedname “privately.” IMHO, that’s BS. The real issue is your legal name — what goes on your driver’s license and passport.

  4. Harriet M. Welsch says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I here you about the hyphens. Not one of my credit cards bears my actual name and it took three tries for the DMV to get it right. Allthough in my case, the hyphenated last name option was eliminated because I thought it would look ridiculous with my hyphenated last name: Harriet-Marie Welsch-Spy, to use a variation of my pseudonym as an example. It makes me look like a one-woman round robin tournament.

    As a liberal child of liberals, I always thought I’d keep my maiden name, but I was surprised to find when I was pregnant with my son that I felt strongly that the whole family should have the same name. We went the traditional route of me taking my husband’s name, but as I didn’t previously have a middle name and had always kind of wanted one, I turned my maiden name into my middle name. Since I’ve published under my maiden name, it gives me the option of including both names to make the connection clear (i.e., on my c.v.) when it matters.

    The other thing that I’m not wild about with hyphenated last names is that it kind of deflects the problem to the next generation. Say my son AJ Welsch-Spy wanted to marry Wilhemina Howard-Taft. If they were to hyphenate the way their parents did, they’d be the Welsch-Spy-Howard-Taft. This is a little more than any child should have to bear.

    I love, though, that you bucked the trend and didn’t just take the easy, usual way out. I have other friends who combined the letters of their (albeit fairly short) birth surnames and created a new name for their family. I liked this because no one got the upper hand. New names for all! But as an historian, I’d be very sad if everyone did this. It’s hard enough to track my subjects’ names changing for marriage the ordinary way.

  5. Pilchie says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    I’m totally with you on this too. My wife and I both regret hyphenating our names too.

  6. S-JY says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Just adding sympathies from the Club of Hyphenated First Names.

  7. Karl Fogel says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 9:15 pm


    Do you have any thoughts about a better route for couples who want to have the same name without symbolically subsuming one partner into the other?

    By the way, one more drawback to your list of drawbacks of hyphenated family names: it doesn’t scale. It barely works for the first generation, as you’ve documented; and after that (assuming everyone were to do it) the lengths of names would just double with every generation anyway.

  8. Karl Fogel says:

    August 25th, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Oh, Harriet M. Welsch already made that point, about the lengthening with each generation. Sorry, I’d only skimmed the comments before posting, my bad.

  9. Michael Haggerty says:

    August 26th, 2008 at 7:20 am

    I like the idea of exchanging middle names, but what do you do if you have children?

    When I got married, my wife (surname Kaiser) and I each kept our own last names. When our daughter was born, we named her “Kaiserty”, which some people find very weird and others find very cool. We invariably have to spell her name out to people but at least there should be no problem with the Ever-Lengthening-Hyphenated-Name or with computer databases. As a bonus, as far as Google knows she’s the only Kaiserty in the world, at least until her brother is born in the next few weeks. They should have no problem getting the domain names that they need 🙂

    The only, minor problem we’ve had so far is that it is not obvious (e.g., at customs) that she is connected to either one of us, so they get a little nervous that we are child-trafficking. So I have taken to carrying a miniaturized photocopy of her birth certificate with me in my wallet just in case.

  10. Lester McGrath-Rosario says:

    August 26th, 2008 at 9:27 am

    The reason it does not work for some is due to cultural issues(tradition) not functionality.

    I am from Puerto Rico, and like most Latinos, use my father’s and mother’s paternal last-names to form my own.

    My father’s LN is McGrath-Andino
    My mother’s is Rosario-López
    Therefore me and my siblings have McGrath-Rosario as a last name.

    My wife’s is Marrero-Rosado
    Therefore my daughter is McGrath-Marrero

    The women never loose their maiden name, even if they marry.

    With this system, family ties are kept and remembered. Also a family tree would be easier to build (Just my opinion).

    BTW, the hyphen is optional. Most people just use a space.

  11. Don Collins says:

    August 27th, 2008 at 9:14 am

    As your father-in-law and therefore indirectly responsible for part of your hyphenated last name, I am with you 100 percent. I agree with your comments.

  12. Jack says:

    August 29th, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Ah, now *here* is an opportunity for Google: you set up a web page for people even remotely thinking about getting married. They enter their old last names and Google tells them their new last name. Since it is the repository of everything ever known or that will be known, it could be sure that their last name was unique. Easier to find them on the web. See, it all comes together…

    For the security conscious, the new last name could be some exotic hash (reversible, in case they ever get divorced). Think of the possibilities! With all alphanumeric characters, you could have a vast name space in a short, effectively unique last name.

    Hello, Mr. 7($_ahQ? Yes, I’m phoning you to tell you about an exciting new investment opportunity…

    Hyphens would be the least of your worries 🙂

  13. Wife says:

    September 5th, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Hmm. I feel it important to point out here that the whole hyphenation bit was a hell of your own making. Note to others: make no sexisit remarks shortly before your fiancee is to take your name.

    So as the other party in the hyphenated marriage, I have to play a bit of devil’s advocate here. Yes computers routinely screw up the name. But they also screw up my address, my first name, basically everything. After a few years you learn all the common compu-variations to check when dealing with computer records. As for human fallibility, I find as many people had trouble with misspelling my name pre-hyphenation as do now. At least now they have sheer length of name as an excuse, before they were just idiots. I don’t feel we’re burdening our kids. Name patterns are changing. More and more people do not change their name when marrying. More and more people are using other cultures’ traditions or creating their own. I give my kid(s) credit to find a solution that works for them. It is our burden to let them know that any choice is okay and that we as parents won’t be offended by their choice.

  14. Debbie Lieberman says:

    September 29th, 2008 at 8:58 am

    I’m getting married for the second time and have a son from my previous marriage. We both have by maiden name as a last name (not topic for this discussion!). I was thinking of hyphenating my last name with my married name as my son would like us to be connected. My fiancee what’s me to have his last name and as a married woman I would like to share my husband’s last name as well. I’m getting discouraged from all these negative reviews but my heart feels for my son’s feelings.

  15. William says:

    October 13th, 2008 at 3:05 am

    Personally, I like the suggestion given in an Arthur C Clarke book(I think it was 3001, and no that’s not a typo, it’s a sequel): both partners keep their name, the sons get the father’s name, the daughters get the mother’s name. There’s still a few problems with it(what about gay couples, children who decide to change their gender, etc.) but the first one’s a problem with the current system and the second one by the time a person can decide to do that they are probably old enough to choose their own name.

  16. A Woman says:

    June 1st, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I kept my birthname upon legal marriage (which is a crock anyway, since the state shouldn’t care to which person I am committed through our love, though the tax advantages were too good to pass up) to a man.

    He kept his birthname. Our children (regardless of their gender) will have a third surname which we’ve invented. It’s not based on any of our names, last first or middle.

    It may be a hassle, though I don’t expect it to be. As long as our legal documents are all in order, it’s less trouble than perpetuating the myth/tradition that it’s “easier” to all take the man’s name upon marriage.

    Our children (and their world) will be freer (and better) for the trouble we put up with now.