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What’s in a (Middle) Name?

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Being a ridiculously indecisive person, I can’t fathom how soon-to-be parents ever decide what to name their kids. The pressure to come up with a name that’s both meaningful and indicative of a future great person, one that sounds cool and unique without guaranteeing a life riddled with mocking, must be overwhelming. Maybe that’s why many of us have the so-called “filler” middle names, like Ann, Lynn, or May (hey, don’t be offended; I have one, too) or carry the names of our relatives—our parents got too burned out picking our first names to focus too much on the middle ones.


But as it turns out, the practice of giving people middle names has mostly practical, not creative, origins. So if you’ve been lamenting the commonplace nature of your middle name, cheer up—your parents were just continuing a trend started hundreds of years ago.


An Origins Story
We’re still not sure exactly why the use of middle names became so popular and widespread in the Western world, but we can at least pinpoint its beginnings somewhat. Giving newborns second names seems to have started with the German upper class during the fifteenth century. It became customary, particularly among Catholics, to give children at least two names, with one being the main, or everyday, name and the other referencing a favored saint.


It didn’t really find a place among the upper class in the U.S. until the eighteenth century. At that point, people chose middle names based on family names, with the mother’s or grandmother’s maiden name being the most conventional choice. That’s where the tradition of honoring relatives via children’s middle names comes from. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the custom was solely that of the wealthy, but by the end of the war, the trend spread to the middle class. By the start of the twentieth century, most Americans had middle names on their birth certificates.


The practice itself probably arose out of a need to differentiate as populations and family sizes increased. It used to be that someone’s last name (which also came from a need to distinguish one person from another—we used to be a one-name kind of society) came from one of four categories: what the person did for a living, any physical or personal characteristic that stood out, where he or she lived, or from the name of either the father or the employer. It was a well-intentioned system, but ultimately one that produced a lot of people with the same name. Whether it was from the mother’s last name, the name of a saint, or inspired by a popular or famous figure (which became more the norm as middle naming gained popularity), adding a second name created more variety and individuality.


Middle Names Across the Sea
The adoption of middle names hasn’t been as widespread in other parts of the world. In fact, just the order of our names in the U.S.—given name first, family name second—is more a Western characteristic than a universal one. In Japanese and Chinese cultures, it’s more common to have the family name come first and the given name proceed it. In these cultures, middle names are rare. However, when people from different cultures and with different languages immigrate to the U.S., it’s not uncommon for them to take on a more Western name and use their given names as middle names. It’s a way to bridge two cultures together, similar to the traditional Jewish practice of having the Hebrew version of the given name as the middle name.


People from Spanish-speaking countries are often thought to have middle names, but it’s more likely they have two last names instead of a middle name. That’s because traditionally, they take the last names of both their fathers and mothers. This custom could be why middle names are rarer there, since two last names already fulfill the kind of contrast that middle names provided in the Western world. In Bali, parents can only choose between a handful of names to give their kids, depending on where their families fall within the caste system. Therefore, middle names are more of a necessity there.


Parents still use middle names as a way to honor relatives, though in some countries it’s more socially mandatory than in others. In Russia, for example, middle names come from the first name of the fathers—this is also called a patronymic name. Religious sources for middle names also continue to be standard, especially in traditional Catholic communities. Among Catholics, parents adopt saints’ names as the middle names for their offspring at birth, or they allow the children to choose a favored saint during their Confirmation ceremonies and add that to their given names.


So now that we have a plethora of names and enough varied last names to prevent the name cloning of the Middle Ages, why do we still use middle names? When I was younger, I would’ve sworn that middle names were invented solely for the purpose of parents having a way to get our attention in a hurry. When our moms used first and middle names (and in even scarier circumstances, our last names), we knew exactly what it meant. I wonder if German nobility or early American aristocrats could’ve predicted that middle names would evolve from designating people to designating the recipients of future punishment. Even if it’s become more of a norm than necessity in our society these days, a mother’s need for that kind of hold over her child ensures that middle names will continue popping up on birth certificates, at least until something equally alarming comes up.

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