v 7.00.00
23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

High-fives for hyphens

I found the tortuous meanders of Peddie et al family names, and whether their middle names were part of their surnames or not, almost impossibly difficult to follow, and their habit of using surnames as first names, even for girls, rather bizarre. Had they at least used hyphens, and used them consistently, the situation would have been easier – and Uncle Sandy, to economise on space, frequently omitted surnames from the intricate family trees that he drew up, whenever he considered them to be implicitly obvious.

My learned cousin Gavin remarks that it was sometimes even more complicated than that:

(I use Debrett's Correct Form, the 1978 edition, as my guide on the subject of hyphenated names.)

Waddells seemed especially prone to different ways of using hyphens or no hyphens.

From some of the land titles of Balquhatstone – when the heiress Elizabeth Gaston Ralston of Glenellrig married George Waddell of Balquhatstone (formerly of Ballochney) they for a time took the name Waddell-Ralston by Royal Licence in order to inherit the estates.

Later, when their daughter Georgeina-Catherine married Alexander Peddie, they took the name Ralston-Peddie-Waddell, subsequently only Peddie-Waddell, for the same reasons.

However, John was Dick Peddie without a hyphen, although by locals he was called Mr Peddie-Waddell (as he was on one of his death certificates). By also having double-barrelled Christian names they made life even more complicated.

The key to the legality of the form appears to rely on the 'by Royal Licence' [provision].

The question arises as to whether "virtual hyphens" should be introduced for the sake of clarity, and the underscore character would be ideal, but I think it would meet with determined opposition and I'm a pusillanimous invertebrate at heart.

In general there seems to be two distinct reasons for the adoption of a bipartite ('double-barrelled') surname:

  • The conjoining of a middle forename (especially it was the surname of a forebear) with ones existing surname

  • The conjoining of someone else's surname with ones own, especially on marriage

The use of a hyphen isn't essential to a double-barrelled surname – indeed, of course, many bipartite names aren't hyphenated, though tripartite surnames generally seem to be.

The procedures often rightly considered to be necessary or at least advisable when conjoining ones surname (or indeed changing it altogether, or changing ones forenames) are not as complicated as one might suppose.

In my own extremely limited awareness of the business of changing ones surname in Britain (which might not apply to Scotland or N Ireland), it may involve a Royal Licence (eg Kaulbach to Kaulback, or Howard to Fitzalan-Howard or Howard-Sneyd) or at least an announcement in the (London) Gazette1,  2 (eg Weidner to Coupland, plus additional forenames).

And more recently I'm aware (at least at third hand) of family members changing forenames by Deed Poll, or changing surname simply by notifying all and sundry (maybe an affidavit is necessary if a birth certificate, passport or driving licence is concerned).

There appears to be a clear distinction between legitimisation and evidencing - a personal decision to change ones forename, surname, or both, appears to be legitimate under English law, but to evidence or prove it may require a Deed Poll. The transfer of a coat of arms as well as a surname appears to require a Royal Licence.


Using our service, you can legally and officially change any part or all of your name. You can change your forenames, surname (or both), add names, remove names, change the spelling of your names or rearrange your existing names.


Changes of Name

By Deed Poll

A change of name may be evidenced by a deed poll prepared by an officer of arms and entered into the official records of the College of Arms. The change of name is gazetted in the London Gazette. The person whose name is changed need not be a person entitled to arms. A deed poll which has been prepared elsewhere may also be entered into the College registers.

By Royal Licence

A surname may also be altered or changed by Royal Licence. Arms granted to one family can only be transferred to another person not in legitimate male line of descent from the original grantee by means of a Royal Licence, followed by an exemplification of the arms. A Royal Licence is usually granted, on the advice of the Secretary of State for Justice, where the petitioner is required by a clause in a will to assume the name and arms of the testator, in order to inherit a legacy, but voluntary applications are also entertained.

A petition for such a Royal Licence is drafted by an officer of arms for signature by the petitioner. It is then submitted on his or her behalf by the officer of arms to the Ministry of Justice, who forward it to Buckingham Palace. A resulting Royal Licence and any subsequent exemplification of arms must be recorded in the official registers of the College of Arms to be valid.

I'm not at all clear about what effect a changed surname might have on the surname of ones existing children, though subsequent children would of course automatically acquire the changed version. But I feel that it surely shouldn't affect the children in collateral branches of the family – my mother-in-law Audrey, directly descended from Bernard Edward Howard, was frequently referred to (incorrectly, I thought) as Audrey Fitzalan-Howard, as were her sisters, mutatis mutandis, even though it was Bernard's great-nephew Henry Howard who had added the prefix by Royal Licence.