Middle names: do they serve a purpose?

March 8, 2007. Written by

Although historically middle names have served a number of specific functions, today it is generally thought of as a ‘second chance’ in designing a name. Sometimes seen as a useful compromise for pacifying others in the family or as a means of preserving a family heritage, middle names can also be used to create a balance between the first and last name.

Origins

In the Western world the use of middle names is a fairly recent custom. During the Middle Ages, people generally had only one fixed name – their given name. Any other name that was added was used as a form of description about the person, such as John the Baker or Mary from London. Before the rise of inherited names, there were broadly four forms of second names that could be added to a given name in order to create a distinct identity for the person.

Second name/surname origins:

  • Descendant or employee of:

    a name that told about the person’s ancestry, usually that of the father, such as Jackson (son of Jack), Richardson (son of Richard), Phillips (either a descendant or an employee of Phillip)

  • Location:

    an indication of the place where the person lived or belonged to, such as Brooke, Davenport, Oakley

  • Occupation:

    a way of linking to what the person did for a living, such as Tailor, Smith or Fisher

  • Descriptive:

    a nickname that described a physical characteristic or a personality trait, such as Grant (tall), Cameron (bent-nose) or Cole (black as coal)

Eventually, when both the first name and second name together began recurring and causing mix-ups, it was necessary to add a further name in the middle to identify the individual more clearly.  Usually, this was done by giving the father’s first name as a second name or by giving two names at the time of baptism.

Present sources for middle names:

  • Relatives/friends:

    a firm tradition in many families and communities around the world is to name the child after a grandparent, godparent or a friend.

  • Mother’s maiden name:

    some families, particularly in parts of Scotland, have a tradition of including the mother’s family name as the middle name. This is how, over time, certain names that were originally surnames have been elevated to eventually becoming used as middle and then, as first names (like Scott, Campbell, Murray)

  • Religious:

    often a name is taken from the saint for that particular day or the patron saint of a village.  When Catholics use a confirmation name as part of a legal name, it is usually placed as a middle name.

  • Circumstances:

    relating to something to do with the birth timing, like Dawn or Aurora (early morning birth), Noel (born on Christmas day), April (month of birth), Summer (the season) or perhaps even where the child was conceived (Brooklyn).

  • Mentor/guide/hero:

    naming after someone you admire, such as Nelson after Nelson Mandela or your favourite popular personality.

  • Cultural:

    a popular way of combining two cultures in the West, is to use the first name as a Western name and the middle name for the culture of origin.  Jews often have a middle name that is the Hebrew version of their everyday name.  If the child is of cross-cultural parentage, the first and middle names each come from the two different origins.

Some stars who preferred their middle name to their given name:

Star name Birth name
Faye Dunaway Dorothy Faye Dunaway
Dionne Warwick Marie Dionne Warwick
Gregory Peck Eldred Gregory Peck
Joni Mitchell Roberta Joan Mitchell
Robert Redford Charles Robert Redford Jr.
Van Morrison George Ivan Morrison
Warren Beatty Henry Warren Beatty

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