General

Why do we have middle names?

To many, it only serves as an indication of how much trouble they’re in, but the middle name must have had a real purpose at some point. They’ve been around for as long as any living generation can remember and have become customary, despite a general lack of understanding why.

As with so many traditions that we don’t often question, some believe they need to look back some 2,811 years to traditions in Rome. However, there are inconsistencies that indicate Ancient Rome may have had nothing to do with our practice of donning three names.

The three names of Rome

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According to "Reader’s Digest," a popular theory for our use of a middle name dates back to Ancient Rome. It wasn’t uncommon for Roman men to sport three names — a praenomen, nomen, and cognomen. The praenomen was the individual’s personal name, such as Gaius, whereas the nomen was the family name, like Iulius. The cognomen was a bit different and was more of a nickname that was passed down from father to son. In the example of Julius Caesar, Caesar was his cognomen.

The issue with this theory, as pointed out by Karen Stern, historian at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, was that the Roman system of three names isn’t the same as how the practice is used today. The nomen, or family name, may have been in the same place as a middle name, but it served different purposes.

Stern also notes that the use of three names wasn’t universal during the Roman Empire’s existence and did not typically pertain to women. For a more evident start to the use of middle names, Stephen Wilson, author of “The Means of Naming,” points to the 13th century and the maritime republics of Italy.

Naming across Italy

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In Wilson’s historical tracing of middle name use, the start of the practice was likely common among the elite in 13th-century Italy. By the 14th century, use of a longer name became popular across all social classes and made its way to the countryside, where it became even more prevalent and spread farther out to isolated regions.

During this period, parents had to make the difficult choice of blessing their child with the name of a saint or allowing them to bear the family name. The former was thought to provide them protection in life. The fix was to use both.

It took some time for the use of middle names to spread to Spain and France, but by the 19th century, 37% of French boys were given a middle name, and 8% sported two middle names. Within 100 years, the use of a first name and three middle names climbed to 46% of boys.

Middle names across the globe

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Italy, Spain, and France weren’t the only regions adopting middle names. England’s upper class started to use a third name, though it wasn’t as widespread as it was in France or Spain. By 1780, middle names were being adopted in Scotland, according to University of Glasgow Ph.D. student Alice Crook. When the 19th century rolled around, Europe was full of citizens with three names, and the concept had already made it across the seas to the United States thanks to colonists and immigrants who brought their customs with them.

In a more modern world where our names are used for just about everything we do and touch, the middle name gives us an advantage that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

A name for all occasions

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It’s not uncommon for someone to use each of their three names for different works or projects. Pablo Picasso is a prime example of this as he was known for testing out some of the dozen names bestowed upon him. On some paintings, he signed P. Ruiz while others were adorned with P. Ruiz Picasso.

Even today, artists use their middle name as their primary stage name. William Bradley Pitt is best known as Brad Pitt, John William Ferrell enjoys his career as actor Will Ferrell, and Hannah Dakota Fanning is always credited as Dakota Fanning.

Middle names and today

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As frequently as we may see middle names used, according to "The New York Times," it’s a practice that’s slowly fading. To put this idea to the test, columnist Bruce Feiler sampled the United States Congress. In 1900, nearly 85% of the members of Congress used their middle initials. More than 100 years later, that number dipped to 38%.