Mind your language

Rebecca Long-Bailey is right: hyphens come and go

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

When Francis Hurt inherited the Renishaw estate in 1777, he changed his surname to Sitwell. His eight-year-old son and heir Sitwell Hurt thus grew up to be Sir Sitwell Sitwell. ‘Perhaps his hypersensitive descendant should resume the patronymic and call himself Sir Hurt Hurt,’ Evelyn Waugh once remarked of his contemporary Osbert Sitwell.

I was reminded of this by a declaration from Rebecca Long-Bailey that her name now bears a hyphen. Ms Long-Bailey’s father Jimmy Long was a trade unionist and she is married to Stephen Bailey, but she did not want to be the last in a long line of Longs.

Failing to keep a firm control on hyphens is not a class thing. Sir John Heathcoat-Amory 3rd Bt went into Who’s Who hyphenated; his wife, in her entry, appeared hyphenless. Hyphens come and go. The founder of the glorious Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford began life as Augustus Lane Fox, but added Pitt-Rivers to celebrate an inheritance from George Pitt, Lord Rivers. His eldest son followed suit, but the rest of the children became Fox-Pitt. Martha Lane Fox, daughter of the well-known Oxford Garden Master, went blamelessly hyphenless until landed with a peerage, becoming Lady Lane-Fox. Even the Labour foreign secretary George Brown ended up as Lord George-Brown in 1970 after Sir Anthony Wagner, Garter King of Arms, insisted he first change his name to George George-Brown.

Now 11 per cent of newlyweds combine surnames and give them, oven-ready-hyphenated, to their children. In footballing dynasties, the joke goes, they’ll need bigger shirts to fit the names of juniors hopefuls sprung of double-barrelled married to double-barrelled. Compared to historic names, the hyphen is a parvenu. The first reference to one is by that indefatigable translator Philemon Holland in 1603, and he writes its name in Greek, in which, suitably enough, it is a compound of hypo and hen, literally ‘under one’, hence ‘together’. The Greeks used a diacritic below the line like the bottom of an o. Its use in English punctuation is another story.

Like tattoos, once worn by the men in the royal family, double-barrelled names have slipped between cracks in the social strata, and with them the haughty hyphen.

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