About middle names

Many people do not give middle names much thought. In today’s Western society, people’s names in several cultures include one or more additional names placed between the first given name and the surname. Middle names could be either given names (like in Anthony Michael Hall) or surnames (like in George Walker Bush).

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The use of two given names – a first name and a middle name – was essentially unknown in Europe until the late Middle Ages, and even then, the practice was limited to a few distinct cultural groups. Middle names among English-speakers were nonexistent until the mid-1600s, remained quite rare for another century or so, and did not become common until well after the American Revolution. George Washington was plain George Washington, for example. The William Pitts, father and son, British prime ministers, had to be distinguished by the suffixes, Elder and Younger. Initially, middle names tended to be lineage-related. John Quincy Adams, the first President to bear a middle name, was named for a maternal great-grandfather.

Middle names are normally chosen by parents at the same time as the first name. Names that are popular as first names are also popular as middle names. A rarer practice is for children to have their mother’s maiden name as their middle name. So, Harriet, daughter of John Walker and Laura Walker (née Marsay), would be called Harriet Marsay Walker. The practice is quite popular in the Southern U.S.

Although it is not a popular practice, many people decided to highlight their middle name more than their first name. Examples in English-speaking countries are Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, Adeline Virginia Woolf, Clinton Richard Dawkins and George Roger Waters.

As whistleblower Edward Snowden discovered some days ago, it pays to have another name to fall back on. Anyone who has ever wondered about the point, exactly, of a middle name will do well to note the case of the world’s currently most famous whistleblower, Edward Joseph Snowden, or, possibly, Edward James Snowden, or Edward J Snowden. It was this confusion, says the Hong Kong government, which led to Snowden leaving the city despite a request from the United States for his arrest.

George Bernard Shaw hated his first name, but soldiered on. Others have retreated into initials – Clive Staples Lewis, for example, sounds more like a firm of chartered accountants than CS Lewis (who, even more confusingly, was known as Jack). Other examples of first name being omitted is in Joanne Kathleen Rowling and Walter Bruce Willis.

The middle name has also come to serve another vital purpose: for use if the first name doesn’t quite suit its bearer for any reason. But, sometimes, is the middle name that causes trouble. Barack Hussein 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.” His vice-president, Joseph Robinette Biden, would most likely agree.

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adapted from bbc.co.uk

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