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August 20th, 2008

Double-barreled names / the third half

by Barbara Wallraff

Deborah Byrd, of Chicago, writes: “What does it mean when a male name is hyphenated -- for example, ‘Michael William-Smith’?”

Dear Deborah: That’s what’s called a double-barreled name, and it’s equally likely to belong to a man or a woman. Once upon a time in England, double-barreled names implied that the family had property -- a castle or some such -- inherited through the wife’s family. Naturally, people who were given such names tended to keep them, even after the custom fell out of fashion. So an inherited English double-barreled name today probably just means that the person’s great- or great-great grandmother had her own money.

Double-barreled names were and are also seen in Germany, Poland, Russia, France and other countries, with the meaning varying from culture to culture. For instance, ancestors of Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov added the “Rimsky” part after they made a pilgrimage to Rome. Spaniards receive both their father’s and their mother’s surname at birth -- though for your purposes these names don’t count, because the combination isn’t usually hyphenated. The French, bless their hearts, have both ancient double-barreled names, which they write with one hyphen, and recently created ones, some of which they write with two -- no doubt to show that the so-named people aren’t putting on airs and trying to pass themselves off as nobility.

Here in North America, too, we have recently created double-barreled names as well as long-standing ones from the Old Country. As I’m sure you know, the newer names, whether they belong to men or women, rarely mean anything exotic. When a couple wants to make it clear that they consider themselves equals, they may decide to join their surnames when they marry.

Carl Steinecker, of South Lyon, Mich., writes: “What is your take on actor Dennis Haysbert’s recent ad for Allstate? When Dennis says, ‘Insurance for the third half of your life,’ I can just feel every math teacher, engineer and scientist cringe. How illogical is this?”

Dear Carl: You want him to call retirement “the last fourth or fifth of your life”? That might be more accurate, but upbeat it’s not. Ads rarely are intended to be informative -- and then they try to improve our knowledge of the product, not grammar or arithmetic. Ads are meant to stick in people’s minds and, even better, give them something to talk about. Most of us aren’t interested in chitchatting about insurance premiums and payouts, unless we’ve just suffered through a tornado or a flood. But did you see the guy drive a car off the top of a Chicago skyscraper? Did you hear Dennis Haysbert talking about a “third half”? Crazy, huh? Stuff like this makes for better conversation and longer memories.

If the mid-20th-century slogan for Winston cigarettes had been the grammatically unimpeachable “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should,” nobody would remember it today. If, a few years ago, Apple had urged us all to “Think differently,” the line would have fallen flat. I think we have to allow advertising its whimsies -- if only because complaining about ads amounts to distributing them free of charge. So, enough said about that!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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