Why Bother With a Middle Name?
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.