Nowadays, there is a curious belief that surnames containing hyphens are indicative of British snobbery and used by people not to be trusted. There are, however, good reasons for the use of the conjunctive symbol, and hyphenated surnames are by no means exclusively English.
As is well known, surnames originated from means of identification depending upon what other people called someone to distinguish him from another of the same given name. With the predominance of common christian names, this led to surnames of occupation, location of origin or residence, patronymics, matronymics and pseudonyms or nicknames. Some names were descriptive of the individual, pejorative or innuendoes.
Among noble families of Europe, it became common to hyphenate baptismal names.
With the union of great baronial families in the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon to continue the use of both names when an heiress married, giving rise to the Fitzalan-Howard, Wickham-Fiennes and Tollemache-Tollemache. As the lower echelons of society rose in education and affluence through commerce and industry, it was often necessary to distinguish one with a common surname from another, and similar principles were applied, particularly with Joneses, Evans and Roberts in Wales.
The name of a putative father in the case of an illegitimate child may well be hyphenated and there are many such examples. A waif was given the name of Vickars-Todd with the christian name Ramsay by the vicar who found him on the church porch. Ramsay MacDonald was the prime minister of the day, the vicar's aircraft had recently been launched and "Sweeney-Todd, the demon barber" was on at the local cinema!
Smith, the most frequently occurring surname in England, abounds with hyphenation to distinguish one family from another.
Mostly, hyphenated names indicate inheritance of property, wealth or pride of ancestry.
Among Baptists (who did not keep records as in the Established Church), with particular names, it was not unusual for each generation to take the surname of the mother. Sometimes, this would be hyphenated, it then became the surname of subsequent generations.
My own ancestor, William Smith, who married Mary Ann Humphery in February 1815 and gave rise to the family of his son William Humphery Smith, was distinguished from other Smiths of London as William Collier Smith, using his mother's name. His father was William Beaumont Smith, his grandfather Thomas Wildman Smith, and so the lineage can be traced back with the surnames of both parents to the early seventeenth century, and through livery company records of the City well beyond. William Humphery Smith's uncle, Sir John Humphery, became Lord Mayor of London, so subsequent generations took the fixed surname Humphery-Smith. William married Mary Ann Hall and one of his grandsons became Douglas Hall-Smith, his cousin whose mother was the daughter of the London historian, Charles Welch, was Graham Welch-Smith. William Smith was a member of the Cutlers' Company; John Humphery-Smith, a Tallow Chandler; Thomas Hall was a member of the Drapers'; Charles Welch, also a Cutler, and while other members of the family remain liveried of these Companies, I am a Broderer and a Scrivener. Many families in the City of London, as in similar cities everywhere, intermarried, apprentices in the crafts often being wed to their masters' daughters. Without such usage, the genealogy of this Smith family in the City of London would have been virtually impossible to trace.
More bizarre is the case of Wilfred Scott-Giles who, curiously, in a government office, shortly after the First World War, found himself in the same room as three others with the same surname, each with the initial W. He added his mother's nationality, of which he was proud, and ultimately it became fixed to him and his descendants as Scott-Giles. Wilfred was an eminent heraldist.
A curious phenomenon occurs, particularly in the United Kingdom, when foreign immigrants arrive and wish to integrate. In the United States of America, immigration authorities would anglicize the surnames at point of entry and register the effectively-new names. Migrants to Britain, especially Jews who might only have a given name, together with trade or craft description or town of origin, would employ a gradual process of assimilation. Aaron, the tailor from Banbury, might become Aaron Taylor or Aaron Banbury. Later, he might appear as Aaron Berger-Taylor and then Arthur Taylor-Burke. So he will integrate into British society as though deriving from ancient gentry lineage. His integrity would appear secure and his insecurity sublimated in his new identity.
It is also worth mentioning the usage of hyphenation when there has been an inheritance of manorial tenure. Sometimes this may not be the usage of a family surname at all, but the field name or title of the Copyhold or Freehold property inherited. In these instances, an alias, as is more frequently used, becomes part of the surname by hyphenation, sometimes before and sometimes after the given surname. It is instanced in my late mother's family at the end of the seventeenth century and later, when James Boxall inherits land tenure from his maternal grandmother and, when dwelling or working in that area becomes James Boxall alias Batt and sometimes James Batt alias Boxall; and, later James Boxall-Batt. The Batt property clearly being more valuable. This is, of course, an exceptional case of usage.
In the Millennium Year, I was able to collaborate with the BBC, on the First day of April, when, in Britain, 'April Fool' pranks are common and valid before midday! Remember the Spaghetti Harvest of 1957 (The year of the ketchup company's 'Lucky Number')? Yes, I was there.
For Millennium year there were a group of yuppies and more sedate older folk all with hyphenated names protesting about the substitution of the hyphen on the QUERTY keyboard by the Euro symbol. By the evening, the gullible were relieved. It hadn't happened!
3 June 2003