The True History of Middle Names

First and last names have obvious uses, but why do we use a middle name? Historically the reason why a person has a middle name is linked with how the middle name itself was chosen. The ancient Romans are believed to be the first to use three names, but it wasn’t the same as middle names today.

Roman “Middle” Names

Karen Stern, Historian at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, explains that initially Romans “used a praenomen or personal name; a nomen, or family name, which ‘has the same placement as a middle name but has a different function’; and a cognomen, which… was a nickname indicating an attribute or, eventually, what branch of a family you were from.” In other words, what we would consider our given name is what they used as their first name. Today’s last name would have been their middle, and their nickname was their used last.

So, if Tiger Woods had been Roman, he would have been “Eldrick Woods Tiger.” It doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? This being said, not all Romans had three names. Women got two, and slaves had only one. As time went on, Roman aristocrats began using the nickname to detail the child’s lineage instead of their nickname.

Italian Middle Names

The use of middle names fell out of popularity until the late thirteen century, when the Italian elites brought back the practice of using a child’s name to spell out the child’s pedigree. Think of it as a type of medieval advertising: my daughter’s bloodlines are impeccable, choose her for your daughter-in-law.

This time however, rather than using a cognomen as the Romans did, they tucked those family names in between the child’s given and last names. And of course, once the popular kids do something, everyone else wants to do it as well. All social classes were using middle names by the end of fifteenth century. During this spread the how of a middle name also changed; after all, lower social classes were less concerned about bloodlines.

Their use of middle names was about protection, and people chose a saint’s name for their child in the hope that the name would provide a celestial shield. Who can blame them – who wouldn’t want a little bonus protection against the Black Death?

Modern Middle Names

A population explosion during the nineteenth century gave people a new reason to give their child a middle name – for differentiation. A middle name was used to not only set your son apart from all the other boys named “John Smith,” but also to express the parents’ ambitions, creativity, and curry a little favor with the relations.

Today middle names are chosen for many of the same reasons: to distinguish a child from parent (“George H.” and “George W.” Bush), to keep a family name alive, to express creativity – or act as a backup just in case the first name doesn’t appeal to the child as an adult (we see you Apple and Coco), to settle a naming disagreement between parents, or because it’s considered fashionable. As popular as middle names are, you might think that a middle name is required, but it’s not. In fact, some states like Connecticut, Michigan, and Nevada don’t require the child’s name to be listed on the birth certificate right away, and give the parents a couple of years to choose a name.

So then, what should we keep in mind when we choose our child’s name? Here are few thoughts:

How does it sound? Say it out loud. A lot. Does it roll off the tongue? There’s some old southern advice that recommends you stand on your front porch and shout your child’s name. Does the name carry? Think about the future when you’ll be shouting like an idiot to get your child’s attention.

Is it easy to pronounce? Write the name down and ask friends to read and say it. Can they do so easily? If not, maybe you’ve tried a little too hard to make the spelling unique.

Will the name fall out of fashion (again, Apple and Coco)? This could cause problems in the future. When asked about his name, former President Obama has said, “I got my first name from my father, and I got my middle name from someone who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president.”

When all’s said and done, how and why a name was chosen is beside the point. As W.C. Fields said, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”

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