I have many times heard jokes related to females who have "long" names, such as "Marianne Doe Smith Swensson O'Reilly And More Last Names Go Here", suggesting that they have been married multiple times and, each time after getting divorced, still kept their husbands' last names, "piling them on" like a form of intangible "baggage" of sorts.

I always wondered why they would do this unless required by law. Is there such a law that says that they cannot "nuke" last names once they get them, but are only allowed to "pile on" the new one to the ever-growing list of last names? Perhaps as a way to signal that it's not a good idea to get married to somebody who's obviously prone to divorces?

If this is not the case today, has it been the case in the past? I wonder about this both for the USA and the Western world in general.


In the USA, at least, it has never, to the best of my information, been legally mandated to add a name on marriage, or even for husband and wife have the same last name. It has long been customary in the US for a woman on marriage, to adopt her husband's surname. This is no not nearly as common as it once was -- it was once almost invariable, but some women did not do so, or kept a pre-marrige name for professional purposes, even many generations ago.

When a woman married, in some social sub-groups it was common to simply drop her former surname and replace it with her new husband's surname. In others, the new surname was added to her existing name, potentially leading to the kind of long series of names mentions in the question. In the 1990s Judith Martin, writing as "Miss Manners", wrote that the first of these was the more "traditional" but both were not uncommon.

When I was married, the clerk asked my wife and I what name each of us would be known by after the marriage, and that constituted a legal change of name. But we were free to make any choice we wanted. I think this has been the usual procedure in the US for a long time now.

On divorce, a woman in the US (and the UK and Canada) traditionally kept her former husband's last name, although some returned to a pre-marriage surname. On remarriage, some added a new husband's surname, others replaced the former husband's name. Some said that keeping the former husband's name was a statement that the woman had been without fault in the divorce, or want to remain associated in some way with her former husband's family. There were, of course, also women who remarried after a former husband's death, rather than a divorce. In any case, I do not think any of this was legally required, but custom can sometimes be as strong as law.

Other cultures had and have different customs on marriage and divorce. But in most places these are not a matter of law. I do not know of any country that legally mandates a change or modification of name on marriage, but some may.


Is there such a law that says that they cannot "nuke" last names once they get them, but are only allowed to "pile on" the new one to the ever-growing list of last names? Perhaps as a way to signal that it's not a good idea to get married to somebody who's obviously prone to divorces?

If this is not the case today, has it been the case in the past? I wonder about this both for the USA and the Western world in general.

I am aware of no such law, either today, or in the past, in the U.S.A. or the Western world.

In the Spanish language speaking world, it is often customary for a child to be given the surnames of both parents and it is not unprecedented for that to continue for more than one generation, which can result in very long names.

It is also common place for members of royal families and high aristocrats to have very long names, only a handful of which are used on a daily basis or in governmental roles, so as to grant symbolic acknowledgement of many people after whom a royal or high aristocrat is named.

Also, keep in mind, that divorce isn't particularly old in the Western (historically Christian) world (divorce was permitted in Islam from its inception in the 7th century CE). Prior to the formation of the Anglican Church, from roughly the 10th century CE until the 17th century CE divorce was almost completely prohibited in all of Christian Europe (although annulments were recognized as was "separation from bed and board" while remaining married).

Divorce had to be expressly authorized on a case by case basis by the legislature in the Protestant countries that legalized it, in almost all of the Western world, until the 19th century. Legislative divorces were exceedingly rare and all rules applicable to them were decided on a case by case basis. I am not aware, however, of any mandatory multiple surnames arising from legislative divorces.

There was also roughly a century in England prior to the institution of judicial divorces where the practice of wife sales in lieu of divorce and remarriage was recognized. See Boettke, et al. "Wife Sales", 1 Review of Behavioral Economics 349-379 (2014). But, in that era, the use of surnames for commoner women in England wasn't even firmly established.

Judicial divorces started to be authorized in most Western countries, including most U.S. states, in the 19th century. Some Western countries didn't legalize judicial divorce until the 20th century. Ireland and Italy were particular late in doing so.

Surnames also weren't firmly established as something used by common people for a long time in many Western nations even when they started to be used by the upper classes and aristocrats, and where they were used, a period of patronymics and matronymics often preceded the use of fixed surnames inherited from parents to children (e.g. in Russia and Scandinavia), with some countries that went through the intermediate stage of patronymics and matronymics often not adopting the latter form of fixed surnames until the 19th century.

By 1400, most English and some Scottish people used surnames, but many Scottish and Welsh people did not adopt surnames until the 17th century, or later. Henry VIII (ruled 1509–1547) ordered that marital births be recorded under the surname of the father. In England and cultures derived from there, there has long been a tradition for a woman to change her surname upon marriage from her birth name to her husband's family name. The first known instance in the United States of a woman insisting on the use of her birth name was that of Lucy Stone in 1855; and there has been a general increase in the rate of women using their birth name. This has gone through periods of flux, however, and the 1990s saw a decline in the percentage of name retention among women. As of 2006, more than 80% of American women adopted the husband's family name after marriage.

Even when divorce was forbidden, remarriage wasn't particular uncommon, however, due to remarriage by widows and widowers. In the pre-modern era, however, except in times of war, widowers remarrying due to the death of wife in child birth was more common than widows remarrying, and husbands typically did not change their names upon marriage or divorce.

Typically, in the era of judicially granted divorces, the law allowed for a change of name upon divorce, allowing a divorcing women to reclaim a maiden name or other premarital name if desired, but also to retain a married name from prior to the divorce. When a married name is kept after a divorce, it is typically done to retain a shared identity with the divorced women's children who typically bear her husband surname.

Typically, the law also provided for a change of name upon a woman's marriage, either voluntarily, or by operation of law, to her husband's name, and later, in more liberal eras, to a hyphenation or double surname, or to a new name all together. At times it has been common for a married woman to use her maiden name as a middle name, in addition to, or in lieu of the middle name she was given at birth.


Under Scots law a woman has always kept her maiden surname but the law, like social convention recognised them under their married surname. In legal documents, right down to at least the 1990s, a married women would appear either only under her married surname or the slightly more archaic Christian name followed by maiden surname followed by “or first married surname” and if she subsequently remarried by “or her next married surname” etc. so for example the three times married Jane Smith would be shown as “Jane Smith or Brown or White or Black” indicating her first husband was Mr Brown, her second husband was Mr White and her final husband was Mr Black.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.