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Why Bother With a Middle Name?

What is the sense or reason for the middle name?
- Curious

You ask a good fundamental question, Curious. The basic purpose of a name is to identify an individual. But most of us use first names as our personal identities, and our last names to identify family relationships. Why do we insert a spare name that we may not use at all? Do middle names fulfill some major need in the human psyche that given and family names don’t? Why yes, of course. And no, not at all.

Multiple given names first arose for the aristocracy in the British Isles in the sixteenth century. The practice didn’t catch-on for everyday citizens on either side of the Atlantic until the middle of the nineteenth century—late enough that most of the early American presidents, men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, had no middle names.

Even today, while most American children receive a middle name (or sometimes several) from their parents, a significant number do not. The birth certificate form provides space to include one, but middle names are not legally necessary in the United States.

So if middle names are not required and rarely used in daily life, why do people bother? In some cases, middle names can perform clear functions. Families with common surnames rely on them to help distinguish their children at school or on legal forms. Middle names can also serve religious roles, such as linking the child to a saint as a role model for a godly life.

For other families, the middle name is a chance to honor personal connections. Some use the middle name slot to pass on a family surname, or pay homage a relative or personal hero. Others use it to reflect their children’s cultural heritage. For instance, American families of Chinese ancestry may choose an English first name and a Chinese middle name for a child.

And then there’s simply style. A middle name can make the full composition sound elegant for formal occasions. It can be a place to play, to experiment with a more daring and unconventional choice than you’d choose for a first name, or send a kind of secret message to your child. And some parents just love names and don’t want to stop at only one!

In other words, middle names serve all of the many, many roles that names in general serve, except identification. If you don’t value any of those roles, you can skip the middle name altogether…but don’t expect your child to thank you for it. Necessary or not, middle names have become so standard in the United States that kids without them can feel slighted. Consider it a cost-free indulgence.

Comments

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March 11, 2013 6:22 PM
By Sabrina (not verified)

My maternal grandmother only gave middle names to 2 of her 5 children (my mother included). My paternal grandmother did not give one to my father, but she gave the 2 older boys middle names. I know for a fact that the ones without middle names felt slighted. My father eventually gave himself a middle name. If you decide not to give your child one I suggest you know for sure that you will never change your mind and give another child a middle name.

March 11, 2013 7:52 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

My father's middle name got him out of some legal trouble.
There was a man in our state who had the same first and last name, as well as year and month of birth as my father and he was in some trouble with the law. My dad was having debt collectors at the door until finally the difference in middle names convinced the agencies that he wasn't their man.

My sisters and I (all born in the 1980s) have stock standard middle names for our generation, but our first names are uncommon (mine is more popular now, but not 30 years ago!). It was nice to have a middle name in common with my friends, even though my first name was so different.

My son's middle name pays homage to my family, as it is my maiden name. My husband's middle name is his mother's maiden name - it ties them to their maternal grandfathers who they are/were both very close to.

I know lots of people who do not like their first given name, so go by their middle name - without needing to change their name legally.

I think it is also an opportunity to use names that you love, but that might be a little "too much" for someone to go by in their day to day life.

March 11, 2013 11:07 PM
By Woo (not verified)

Let's not look over the another common-experience of the practice: if you get called by your full three names, it was a clear heads-up you were in trouble with your mom! ;)

March 12, 2013 9:47 AM
By cdmom (not verified)

Middle names are also great for guaging how well you know someone. I know the middle names of all my close friends.

March 13, 2013 11:08 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

Would you rather choose your child's middle name yourself, or let a computer or bureaucracy do it?

I don't have a middle name, and there are times when it is problematic. These might seem insignificant, but they can be annoying.

1. Computers assume you have a middle name and will sometimes assign one (often X)
2. A lot of email systems at universities and businesses use your initials as part of your email address, and they expect 3. Again, if you don't have a middle initial, they will assign one to you
3. Sometimes your middle name becomes NMI (no middle initial), which gets old

And in addition to all that, you can't get anything monogrammed

March 13, 2013 11:49 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

I gave both my kids middle names, I couldn't imagine not doing it. One has a middle name that is a family honor & the other has a middle name that is just one we liked and though sounded good. We have a very common last name & my oldest has already encountered someone with his exact name in the same school district. Despite the fact the kids went to different schools, are different ages and in different grades the school couldn't seem to figure it out. The different middle names is what final led to a resolution for the problem.

March 19, 2013 12:27 PM
By L only (not verified)

My parents (midwestern, protestant) gave me just a middle initial, like Harry S. Truman. My initial is the same first letter as my maternal grandmother, Lucille. Because forms always anticipated a full middle name, when clerical staff entered "L" they frequently would add "only" which had the unfortunate effect of giving me a middle name - Lonly.

March 19, 2013 1:06 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

Only some of my husband's 6 siblings have middle names, as does my husband. Both my first and middle names are from two of my great aunts. So, when we had our daughter we named her after my husband's aunt and gave her my middle name. Then our son was given my husband's middle name as his. I see giving middle names as a way of keeping family names in the family.

March 19, 2013 2:06 PM
By Juanaquena (not verified)

I don't see this comment in the earlier comments . . .

A friend of mine, who was raised Roman Catholic, before Vatican II, told me he was not given a middle name at birth/baptism. He said in those days the Catholic tradition, as it is now, was for a child to choose a name (saint's name) as a "confirmation name." Then, the old Catholic tradition, that chosen name became the person's middle name.

April 4, 2013 11:18 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter does not have a middle name. My thought process when she was named is that when she marries, she will be able to have her maiden name as a middle name. And when I speak her full name, my point is still made regardless of no middle name!

April 6, 2013 12:17 PM
By Samaa tv (not verified)

as it is now, was for a child to choose a name (saint's name) as a "confirmation name." Then, the old Catholic tradition, that chosen name became the person's middle name.

April 12, 2013 4:26 AM
By Lola (not verified)

I have a middle name, my full name is Lola Bess. I was named Bess after my great-grandma. I think middle named are good to give your child a well-remembred family member's name if you have already chosen their first name. Like, you like the name Lola, but you want your daughter to have your dead great grandma's name. Middle nmae is perfect! My friend has more than one as her parents liked so much.

April 12, 2013 2:59 PM
By Lindsay P. (not verified)

My grandfather was not given a middle name because he was the firstborn (and only) child of his parents, and was first of his family to be born in the United States back in 1911. My father, out of respect, asked if he could give my 2 brothers my grandfather's first name as their middle name, and the tradition has carried on in the family. I was the oddball, being the only girl, so my grandfather got the honor of giving me my middle name. :)

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