Most of us can understand the utility of having a first name: since it prevents us from calling
everyone we meet “hey you!”
And in many naming customs, surnames are a way to tie us to our family members and express
our direct lineage.
But why do we have middle names? Do they have any function? And when did we start doling them out?
The practice of assigning middle names likely traces back to the 13th century.
In his book on the history of names, The Means of Naming: A Social History, author Stephen
Wilson notes that at first, having more than one name was popular largely among the Italian
elites in places like Florence, Perugia, Venice, and Rome.
And in Gascony, a region in southwest France, having two first names came into play among
the elite as early as the 11th and 12th centuries.
By the 1400s in Italy, we start to see middle names pick up in popularity in Europe, and
among the well-to-do, the preferred names came from those of saints in the Catholic Church.
The logic was that naming a child after a saint would offer additional protection. So
middle names were kinda like the baby proofing of the 1400s.
By the 18th century, Europeans from all social classes began giving middle names to children on a
more common basis And in the 19th century, second names were an accepted practice across
Europe and in the US.
So, what happened? Well, in the years between 1400 and the 18th century, middle names in
certain parts of Europe became less associated with the elite, and more to do with the specific
naming trends in particular countries.
For instance, in languages like French, English, and Italian, middle names were ornamental
or were just a way to tell people apart as the population swelled.
So if there were 6 guys named “John Doe” in your village, then it was helpful to have
“John Marcus Doe” “John James Doe” etc, just for clarity.
In others, people went by different names at different points in their lives. And for
others still, middle names served as a way to pass on a popular family name, without
having everyone go by the same moniker. So you get to honor your
great-grandma Eunice in a more discrete way.
But in other countries, and languages, middle names serve a similar purpose to surnames,
namely to connect people to their paternal lineage. So it’s less of a middle name,
and more an extension of the family name.
These kinds of names are patronymic, meaning they’re derived from a father. Although
in some instances, patronymics can be drawn from another male ancestor.
The language that uses patronymic middle names that you’re probably most familiar with
In Russian, it’s common for people to have a first name followed by a patronymic and
a surname. The modern Russian patronymic takes a distinct form that’s broken down into
Male patronymic names typically end in -ovich or -evich
Female patronymic names end in -ovna or -evna.
So a man with the patronymic name Alexander “Ivanovich” would be Alexander, son of
Ivan. But patronymics also stretch back hundreds
of years and across continents.
For example, Wilson notes evidence of patronymic middle names in the North African regions
that were part of the expanded Roman empire.
Romans of higher rank sometimes had a 3 part names consisting of a praenomen (or personal/first
name), a family name (or nomen) and a cognomen which served as a sort of nickname.
After the Roman defeat of Carthage (located in modern day Tunisia) in 146 BCE, patronymic
names were adopted that blended Roman naming customs and the Punic names favored by Carthaginians
to create a new tradition.
This system is pretty similar to the Hebrew naming practices I discussed in “What was
Jesus’ real name?” so if you’re interested in hearing about that be sure to check out
that video after this!
And to add just one more layer to the mix, the title “middle name” may not even be
useful in other languages where family names and surnames come first and second names are
an extension of your personal name (and not a “middle name” at all).
So if you have a Korean or Chinese name, your family’s name would come first, followed
by your personal names. Which means that in this order it would be surname, personal name,
second personal name. So the moniker and concept of a middle name truly only works for certain
And in other languages (and regions) the middle name is also not a personal name but another
form of family address. So if you have a Spanish name, depending on your country of origin,
your middle name can be drawn from your maternal side or from a series of names meant to show
the extent of your family tree. For example Spanish painter Pablo Picasso’s full name
was a whopping twenty words which you can read right here
Aaaaaand, great! You’re all caught up.
But while he tested out a few combinations of names in his early career, he ultimately
settled on the moniker that we all know him by today which was two words.
But while today in the US it’s not all that common to see people with more than one personal
name (since even people with multiple names usually stick to one or the other) the middle
initial also saw some increased popularity in the 20th century. At least according to
a 2014 article in the NY Times by Bruce Feiler. Feiler notes that middle initials for writers,
which used to be a staple of many book covers, slowly dropped in popularity from the end
of the 20th century and into the early 2000s. 7 US presidents used middle initials from
Franklin D. Roosevelt up to Gerald R. Ford. Although President George W. Bush did bring
the middle initial back to the oval office to avoid confusion with his presidential father.
Social scientists Wijnand A. P. Van Tilburg and Eric R. Igou also note in their article
that people who used middle initials in fields like medicine, academia, and law were evaluated
more favorably on things like writing, status, and intellectual performance.
So while middle initials may be on the decline for John Q. Public (myself included) they
still serve a function in certain fields.
Well it seems like the middle name is essentially the 6th toe of the naming world: it’s not
always useful or functional, sometimes we inherit it from our ancestors, and it’s
always pretty fun to look at.
So what do you think? Anything to add on this little history
with lots of offshoots? Think you can turn your dad’s name into a Russian patronymic?.