The sociolinguistics of English middle names

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A note from Bob Ladd:

I just picked up and put away a book I'd bought in a second-hand bookstore before going to Romania in 1978, called "The Balkans in our Time", by Robert Lee Wolff, a mid-century Harvard historian.  I realized that he's yet another example of a generalization that must somehow tell us something about how language works: Anglo-elite American academic historians often use their full middle name.  Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager come readily to mind, but Robert Lee Wolff fits the pattern, as does another more recent writer, Walter Russell Mead.  And Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell, was a historian. It's hard to search for these on Google, but I'm pretty sure I've noticed others, and I can't think of people who use their middle name and *aren't* American academic historians, except for good ol' boys like Billy Bob Thornton and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Actually, as I wrote the above I wondered about the Anglo-elite Harvard connection, and I realize I may be underestimating that factor and overestimating the historian factor.  A look at the Harvard presidents website throws up James Bryant Conant (who was a chemist, apparently), and a further search of the mental lexicon produces John Maynard Keynes, who was certainly Anglo-elite but not American.  Similar websites from other Ivy League-ish places suggest other such names, mostly from about 1850-1950, though they aren't people I've heard of so it's hard to be sure if they were really know by all three names.  (The Cornell president website seems to list middle names for everyone, including people who I know didn't regularly use them.  Penn seems to do the same.)

Obviously I need a vacation.

I believe that Billy Bob Thornton and Jerry Lee Lewis are instances of a different pattern, namely compound first names, where friends would call them "Billy Bob" or "Jerry Lee". I doubt that Samuel Eliot Morison's intimates called him "Samuel Eliot".

Conforming to the original pattern, there are also writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Louis Stevenson; and politicians like William Jennings Bryan. There are also women, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose middle name may have been retained out of deference to their name before marriage — EBB was born Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett.

Of course, there are quite different multiple-name patterns in other cultures: French compound first names, Russian patronymics, Spanish apellido paterno and apellido materno, etc.

And there's the maybe-related pattern of using a first initial and a middle name: E. Digby Baltzell, J. Fred Muggs. Or two initials, like E.E. Cummings, J.R. Ewing, or A.A. Milne. Or the occasional explosion of names exemplified in Milne's immortal lines

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his mother
Though he was only three.

Anyhow, other LL readers in need of a vacation may be able to help us understand why certain English-speaking subcultures use middle names more adhesively than others. I imagine that there's even a scholarly literature on this subject, though I don't have time to look for it.

[Update — We shouldn't neglect the recent famous case of name recycling: our 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, and our 43rd president, George Walker Bush. There are apparently older generations of George Bush, and at least one newer.]


  1. Jessica D. said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Wild guess: Fewer surnames (and possibly given names) in the pool, fewer available permutations of two names, thus use of the middle name to distinguish oneself from the other John Smith?

  2. Ellen said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    I don't know if it's significant, but I notice all those middle names (if we accept Billy Bob and a compound name) are names that are also surnames, most of which would be rare, if existant at all, as first names.

  3. Bruce said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    There's also a practice common in some regions of the south of going by one's middle name. For example, Wade Hampton Sides becomes W. Hampton Sides and goes by the name Hampton (he happens to be a writer, but many non-literary folks do it as well). Seems like affluent southerners do this more frequently than regular folks.

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    My personal experience is that contemporary Americans in general use middle initials and names a lot more than Brits. It may be reverse snobbery. Using middle names or initials has a fairly strong class connotation in Britain, and most people don't want to be considered poshos. cf "Forename Surname II/III/IV", which you would (almost) never see in Britain. Even the aristocrats would go with the Third Baron of Giggleswick or something like that.

  5. Richard Gadsden said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    Hmmm, I wonder if some of these are unhypenated compound surnames rather than conventional middle names. Certainly, quite a few of them are adopted from mothers' or grandmothers' maiden names.

  6. Ben Martin said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    This seems appropriate. From the movie Conspiracy Theory (1997, written by Brian Helgeland ), courtesy of IMDB:

    Jerry: David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, Richard Speck…
    Alice: What about them?
    Jerry: Serial killers. Serial killers only have two names. You ever notice that? But lone gunmen assassins, they always have three names. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman…
    Alice: John Hinckley. He shot Reagan. He only has two names.
    Jerry: Yeah, but he only just shot Reagan. Reagan didn't die. If Reagan had died, I'm pretty sure we probably would all know what John Hinckley's middle name was.

  7. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    @Jessica D. re the small name pool: I've been reading about Afrikaans lately, and my (totally informal wildly unscientific) impression is that the name pool is very limited indeed among white Afrikaans speakers. Or at least there are a number of very high frequency surnames (Du Plessis, De Villiers, Coetzee, etc.). But at the same time, quite a few authors choose to go by their initials only (granted, usually two), even on book covers…

  8. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    John Wayne Gacy would be the exception to the serial killer rule.

    Don't forget William Carlos Willliams in this discussion. He is always referred to with the Carlos–when his first name is used his middle name is too.

  9. Nada said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    There's a tendency in some Anglo-American families to use the same first names over and over again, e.g., the first-born son is always "John", but the middle name is different for each generation, and each person tends to go by their middle name.

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Scots eldest sons frequently have the same first names as their fathers, but actually use their middle names instead, and will abbreviate themselves as e.g.

    J. Ewan McPherson

    An author relative of mine whose name follows this pattern finds that Americans frequently switch round his initial and forename to conform to their preferred Homer J Rodeheaver pattern. I actually have an American edition of one of his works with this error on the front page.

  11. Charles Wells said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    Four points:

    1) I come from a middle class non-affluent southern family and about 60% of the men in the three generations before me used their middle name as their usual familiar name. My family had very few compound first names (Jessie May is the only one I recall). That may have been a class thing. Or it may be that compound first names came into existence only in the last fifty years. This is worth investigating.

    2) Lots of Americans include their middle initial when giving their name. Harry S Truman even added a middle initial because people seem to expect it.

    3) British people don't usually use middle initials; they either include their full middle name or don't mention it at all (they would use J. T. Smith or John Thomas Smith but not John T. Smith). This is complicated by the fact that many Britishers have three given names. My impression is that full middle names are used mostly when the middle name is the mother's name (that is true of William Spencer Churchill) and that then it is often alphabetized using the middle name in the phone book, so it is considered a compound name. This is just my observation (I am an academic who has lived for short periods in Britain) and should be checked.

    4) A trend I have noticed only very recently is for married women to use their maiden name spelled out in full. If Mary Jones married a Smith she would now sign her name in emails, on web pages, and in letters as Mary Jones Smith, whereas a few years ago she would have been just Mary Smith. I know at least a dozen women who have adopted this mode in the last two years. Most of them are connected with academia.

  12. T. Michael Keesey said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    My patrilineage (of Pennsylvania German descent) has a recent, short-lived custom (I'll likely be ending it) of using the father's first name for the firstborn son, but a different middle name. In my case, I ended up going by my middle name to avoid confusion. (Or, more commonly nowadays, my last name, since my middle name is so ridiculously popular.) Coincidentally, the same is also true of my maternal uncle (of Norwegian/Texan descent). Unlike him, though, I use my first initial in my "official" appellation, in signatures, etc.

  13. Jens Fiederer said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    Anecdotally, I very frequently use my middle name when writing it out in full, usually completing forms asking for "Middle Initial" with the complete "Jens Bernhard Fiederer" …. although I notice I use just "Jens Fiederer" when posting to this board.

    Bernhard is my father, he's a wonderful man, and that motivates me to EMPHASIZE the "Bernhard" at times.

  14. Mark P said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    William Jennings Bryan Dorn was a South Carolina politician, obviously named after WJB. He is the only instance I can think of in which all four names were used for a person who actually had four names.

    Double first names used to be more common in the southern US, especially for women. In my own family we had Alva Ruth and Queenie Mae. My father was known by his middle name within his family, and by his first name only by those who knew him in other contexts. As for the use of initials in addressing people, I knew a man of my father's generation whose name was actually initials – no names attached. It was something of an embarrassment when he went to Britain. His name was W.C.

  15. Bobbie said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    On Facebook, many women are using three names :Given Name, Maiden Name, Married Surname. That makes it much easier to find missing classmates and old friends. (Even if you don't know who they married, you can search for them by their maiden name and hope for the best.)

  16. Meg said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    I would assume that in academic circles, the middle name is used professionally to distinguish between scholars with the same/similar names. Thus the reason that you're going to cite Henry J. Smith or Henry A. Smith rather than Henry Smith. Subsequently you might see Henry Arthur Smith so that there's not overlap with the person who proceeded him.

    This might be speculation though based on knowing that many actors will use their middle name (or change their name) because there is already a union actor with the same name– for the same reason.

  17. Lane said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    Interesting discussion. I'm one of those Americans who decided to use all three names — Robert Lane Greene — as my official written name. I share a lot of these reasons mooted above, and more:

    – I am southern; my parents named me as RLG but I have always been called "Lane". I too have noticed that this seems common in the south; my dad was known by his middle name, as was one of his brothers.

    – Robert is a widely used family name. My grandfather, Robert Wilson Lane, was my namesake and in my youth, my hero.

    – We're not remotely elite or upper-class, though. Several members of my dad's family go by their middle name. To call them "lower-middle-class" would be a euphemism, though. They grew up pretty poor.

    – As a young person beginning a writing career I had to decide whether to go by plain old Lane Greene or not. To my annoyance I found by Google and Lexis-Nexis a widely-known Lane Greene in Atlanta, a preservation architect frequently quoted in the papers. (I come from Atlanta myself.)

    – "Lane Greene" seems awful short, and unlike many three-part names, "Robert Lane Greene" is a nice medium four syllables

    – some part of me wanted to make sure people knew I was male. There are female Lanes out there, and I've met one.

    – And yeah, maybe I was aiming "up", thinking of those more elite types who use three names. But this motivation, if it was there, was pretty below the surface. I just liked the balance and rhythm of Robert Lane Greene.

    So there, an n=1 of how one person made his decision. If I committed a sin of pretension, I have paid for it: I was asked to sign "The 48 Laws of Power" by one Robert Greene after I gave a talk once. I told the crestfallen book-holder that he was looking for another guy. It had never occurred to me that I might get mixed up with that Robert Greene, Robert Greene the Elizabethan writer, or Bob Greene the journalist. But oh well, I've made my decision, and now I'm going to stick with it. I hope it won't cost me when my own book — on the politics of language — comes out next year…

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    We don't think Prof. Wolff was known to his friends in Cambridge as "Bobby Lee"? Impressionistically, I would agree that this is now less common than it was in the 1850-1950 time frame. In terms of the ethnicity angle (which ought to be at least partially disentangled from the class angle), using surnames from somewhere up the family tree as middle names (for boys, at least) is reasonably common among WASPs but seems less common among other American ethnic groups. My own middle name is my mother's maiden name, which is probably especially common for first-born sons.

    Brits may use middle names less frequently in social contexts but in my experience are consistently more likely to use their full names, rather than middle initials, in legal documents (and also seem more likely than Americans to have more than one middle name). But the "dialect" differences between London solicitors and New York attorneys do not necessarily track broader cross-Atlantic differences outside of professional jargon.

    Going back to Robert Lee Wolff and Jerry Lee Lewis, the only punk-era rock and roll musician I can think of off hand who was consistently known by all three names is the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club. So maybe there's something special about Lee. (See also the claim floating out there on the internet that those indicted for homicide are disproportionately likely to have the middle name "Wayne." And John Wayne Gacy [sp?] was a serial killer, rather than one-time assassin.)

    In Hollywood, I believe that there's a guild convention that each currently active member of e.g. the actor's union has to have a unique name for credits, so some actors (maybe screenwriters too?) will in the professional context consistently use a middle name or initial for differentiation purposes because someone who was already in the business already had the basic first/last combination locked up.

  19. John McIntyre said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    One further Southern wrinkle. It is also common in the South to use a first name-middle name combination familiarly. I am John Early McIntyre (Early being my mother's maiden name), and I was almost universally addressed and referred to as John Early throughout childhood and adolescence in Kentucky.

  20. Cheryl Thornett said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    A different version of this is the British habit of referring to the middle name and surname of a well-known person. George Bernard Shaw becomes Bernard Shaw and Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams is Vaughan Williams, in contexts where most US references would be to the full name or surname alone. It is possible that these two cases follow the individuals' preferences, of course.

    (These are the only examples that come to mind on a hot, humid afternoon following a day of running between the ESOL classes I was teaching, and a different ESOL class taking oral exams at the same time and requiring a teacher's presence as facilitator.)

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    Some more famous historical middle namers/initiallers from this side of the pond:

    Gerard Manley Hopkins
    JMW Turner
    JRR Tolkien
    TS Eliot (sort of)
    TE Lawrence
    DH Lawrence
    Isambard Kingdom Brunel

  22. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    "In Hollywood, I believe that there's a guild convention that each currently active member of e.g. the actor's union has to have a unique name for credits, so some actors (maybe screenwriters too?) will in the professional context consistently use a middle name or initial for differentiation purposes because someone who was already in the business already had the basic first/last combination locked up."

    Most famously (in the UK anyway), Richard E Grant.

  23. Ben said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    Ben Folds, performing outside at Columbia University, looked at the frieze above Butler Library which reads "Homer Herodotus Sophocles Plato Aristotle Demosthenes Cicero Vergil" and said, "That Homer Vergil sure has a lot of names. The more names you have, the fancier you are. Like Sting."

  24. NW said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    Vaughan Williams is a surname, like Lloyd George and Lloyd Webber. I think (I mean, I presume) Bernard Shaw was so called because Bernard was the name he used: his friends called him Bernard rather than George. Half our prime ministers seem to discard their first names: (James) Harold Wilson, (Leonard) James Callaghan. Perhaps in the USA they would have gone as J. Harold Wilson, L. James Callaghan.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    Just conducted a brief empirical study of current US academic usage by skimming the Fall 2009 catalog of (in deference to our host) the University of Pennsylvania Press. I'm assuming they don't have a house style but defer to the author's own preference. Pretty random mix of first/last and first/middle-initial/last. A few hyphenated surnames, which I assume represent Brits or poseurs or perhaps feminists. Five women using three full names, four of which seemed likely to be preserving a maiden name (e.g. Rebecca Hartkopf Schloss, Kathleen Hall Jamieson — only Monique Dascha Inciarte was a possible exception to this pattern). Two men: Jason David BeDuhn (no idea of the provenance of that surname — you wouldn't think he'd worry about being confused with all the other Jason BeDuhns in the phone book) and Richard Candida Smith (who has an accent over one of the a's in the middle name, although the webpage is internally inconsistent as to which one). Whether any of these are consistent with the "Steele Commager" pattern is left as an exercise for the reader.

  26. Andrew said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

    Two nitpicks::

    1. 'Spencer' was not Winston Churchill's mother's name (that was 'Jerome'). His branch of the family had been called 'Spencer-Churchill' since the 18th century, when the head of the Spencer family married the daughter of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and in due course inherited the Churchill titles and estates. 'Spencer-Churchill' was strictly speaking a double-barrelled name, though the first half was often dropped.

    2. George Bernard Shaw was called 'Bernard Shaw' because that is what he preferred; he just liked his middle name better than his first name. 'Vaughan Williams' is, I think, rather different; it's treated as a compound surname; he was Mr Vaughan Williams, and it would actually be wrong to say 'Mr Williams' (while 'Mr Shaw' is fine).

  27. Mr Punch said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    Another reason for use of a middle name is that the individual is named after someone, first and last name: George Washington Carver, Benjamin Franklin Butlet, etc. I believe that this is the case with Samuel Eliot Morison.

  28. acilius said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    Interesting about (James) Harold Wilson and (Leonard) James Callaghan- the USA went through a phase like that a few decades before, with Presidents (Stephen) Grover Cleveland, (Thomas) Woodrow Wilson, and (John) Calvin Coolidge.

    I wonder if an American tendency to use second or third names in preference to first names could be a survival of the old German tendency to do the same thing. As in (Johann Chrystostom) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or (Carl Philipp) Emanuel Bach.

  29. Alan Gunn said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    I've known a few people who write their names in the usual American way ("James D. Smith") but are called by their middle name ("Dave Smith"). My father and I carried this a step further by being called by our first names by most people, but by our middle names by (most) family members and a very few family friends. Many years ago my wife (then my fiancee) was surprised to hear my mother call me "Mike," a name my wife didn't know I had, let alone used. I have no idea how common this is; it's the sort of thing you wouldn't know about unless someone you knew very well did it. Or if someone submitted a comment about it, I guess.

  30. Anna Phor said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    My family tradition, on both the paternal and maternal sides, is to use a family name from the mother's side as a middle name, for both boy and girl children. So my middle name is my mother's maiden name, and my mother and my brother both have the same middle name, which is the maiden name of my mother's maternal grandmother. My father's middle name must go back several generations because I don't know who it belongs to, but his mother had her grandmother's maiden name as a middle name.

    I can see how the tradition of family names as middle names would be useful for wealthy families who wanted to track familial (and property) connections, but neither of my parents' families were middle class until WWII, and this practice goes back farther than that.

    My family is Scottish, and I believe there are other lexical patterns which signify class status in England but don't have the same significance in Scotland. The sweet dish served at the end of a meal is in my family called pudding, not dessert and you use a napkin rather than a serviette. My understanding is that in England, these are upper-class (not middle-class) forms.

    Longfellow's mother was a Wadsworth–Wikipedia doesn't tell me what Shelley's mother's name was (although of course his wife carried her famous mother's surname as a middle name). Robert Lewis Stevenson was born (according to Wikipedia) Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson–his mother was Margaret Isabella Balfour. Keynes' mother was Florence Ada and there aren't any clues about who Maynard was–however we do learn that his parents "were loving and attentive, but not smolderingly so"!

  31. mark justice hinton said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Although I never introduce myself as "Mark Justice Hinton," I always use my middle name in print. Reason: I like it. Further data available to academicians with time to kill. peace, mjh

  32. Andrew said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Other examples (British) of initials: GK Chesterton, HG Wells, AP Herbert, PG Wodehouse, CS Lewis, CS Forester. (It may be worth mentioning that Milne and Herbert both became well-known by wrting for Punch, where at that time writers were identified by their initials only, so that they would have been known simply as AAM and APH.) I can think of another notable American example, but I will not write his name here.

    Another example of something similar to George Bernard Shaw from the sam period – J. Rudyard Kipling. Just 'Kipling' is all right, but one would never call him Joseph Kipling.

  33. Ray Girvan said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    Anna Phor: Wikipedia doesn't tell me what Shelley's mother's name was

    Elizabeth Pilfold (vai ODNB).

  34. Bobbie said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Michael Jackson, who died June 25, left behind three children: son Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince Michael, 12; daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 11; and son Prince Michael Jackson II, 7.
    Nowhere have I seen what the younger son is called. "Prince Two?"

  35. John Cowan said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    I don't know who it was that observed that university presidents run to three names: in addition to the above-mentioned Andrew Dickson White of Cornell (whose name explains why E.B. White's friends called him Andy, though or perhaps because his given names were Elwyn Brooks), there was also John Huston Finley of CCNY, though he published his works of history as "John Finley".

    But the mother-lode of triple-barreled names is the University of Chicago: of 13 presidents to date, six have gone by three full names (William Rainey Harper (Semitics), Harry Pratt Judson (history), Ernest DeWitt Burton (Greek), Robert Maynard Hutchins (law), Hanna Holborn Gray (history), Don Michael Randel (musicology)), five more have used their middle initial (Lawrence A. Kimpton (philosophy), George W. Beadle (genetics), Edward H. Levi (law), John T. Wilson (psychology), Robert J. Zimmer (mathematics)), and only two have gone without altogether (Hugo Sonnenschein (economics), Max Mason (mathematics, physics)).

    My name in full is John Woldemar Cowan. I use the middle name only on the two books I've published to date, as librarians will not love me if I get mixed up in their records with all the other John Cowans. My names are my grandfathers' given names; my maternal grandfather, Woldemar Schultz, had a severe name-problem: bad enough in Germany, but much worse in the U.S., where his wife called him Wally and his co-workers called him Bill (after his signature "W. Schultz"). And, of course, it's almost homonymous with He Who Must Not Be Named (that t is silent, it's French!)

  36. carla said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    I use my full name wherever I can, for several reasons.

    One is just that I feel my full name *is* my name; my name doesn't sound complete to me without it. (People address me by my first name only, of course; it's just that seeing my first name and my surname written out doesn't look complete to me.)

    Another, related, reason is that my middle name is more identifiably Jewish than my first name, and as such I like having it there as part of my identifier, if you will. My surname is unmistakably Jewish, so it's not as if I need the middle name for that, but it seems to balance the picture somehow.

    Oddly both my brothers have middle names as well but neither uses them, not even in initial form. Oh, and my eldest brother is a historian.

  37. Philip said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    "William Jennings Bryan Dorn was a South Carolina politician, obviously named after WJB. He is the only instance I can think of in which all four names were used for a person who actually had four names."

    Well, there's the former Canadian PM William Lyon MacKenzie King, but he's named after William Lyon MacKenzie, the first mayor of Toronto and his grandfather, so it fits the same mold.

  38. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Looking at the Wikipedia list of 780 or so science fiction authors, only about 40 use three names (eg Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Arthur Conan Doyle).

    Some use initial initial (H. Beam Piper) or middle initial (Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks) and some two initials (JG Ballard, HG Wells) but it looks like a good majority are straight two-namers.

    I understand Ursula K Le Guin was originally published as UK Le Guin to prevent boys finding out she was female; something similar happened to JK Rowling (not on the sf writers' list, btw), whose name was simply Joanne Rowling and who invented a K for the publishers.

    My middle name is Armitage, a family maiden name (my grandmother's) and all together would make for an unwieldy and rather pompous-looking 8-syllable name on a book.

    Initials rather than middle names crop up in social terms in English cricket, where up to the 1960s the gentleman amateurs were known on the scorecard as, for instance, I.T.A. Carruthers but the working professionals would be known as Smith, T.J.. (HG Wells's father was a cricket pro for Kent).

    Posh people would tend to have more initials, leading to things like this in 1984: "Senior player Trevor Jesty left the club on my appointment citing that there was no point in him staying, as he didn’t have the three letters before his surname – and that was obviously the most important criteria when captaining Hampshire."

  39. Janet Swisher said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    My father, who is from Pennsylvania Quaker stock, uses "S. Clement Swisher" formally, and "Clem" informally. Both his first name, "Stokes", and his middle name are family surnames. He was called "Clem" because he had an older cousin, John Stokes Swisher, who was known as "Stokes". Probably there was another John Swisher in the family that the cousin was being distinguished from.

    So, there you have the first-initial-middle-name pattern and the too-many-kids-not-enough-names pattern, caused by the recycling-family-surnames pattern.

  40. MattF said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    Hmm… David Brion Davis, William Appleman Williams, David Hackett Fischer,… the list goes on…

  41. John McIntyre said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    In addition to university presidents, Episcopal bishops are notable for using their full names. In the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, for example, there are the incumbent, Eugene Taylor Sutton, and predecessors Thomas John Claggett, William Murray Stone, William Rollinson Whittingham, John Gardner Murray, Edward Trail Helfenstein, Noble Cilley (pronounced "silly") Powell, and Harry Lee Doll.

  42. Sili said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    F. Scott Fitzgerald I see was named Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.

    I would have to look up with E.O. Wilson's names were.

  43. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    Some more recent contemporary British academic initiallers:

    AJ Ayers
    AJP Taylor
    AC Grayling

    So on this comprehensive, not at all cherrypicked evidence it seems that US humanities academics go for spelled out middle names, while British humanities academics go for initials but no given names.

  44. Bloix said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    Lots of American artists and authors were three-namers. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry David Thoreau. John Greenleaf Whittier. Edgar Allen Poe. Richard Henry Dana. Edward Everett Hale. William Dean Howells. Oliver Wendell Holmes. John James Audobon. George Washington Peale. James McNeil Whistler. John Singer Sargeant.

    There's also the WASP tradition of giving boys family names, so that the name works fine backwards and forwards: Kingman Brewster, for example.

  45. bfwebster said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Two observations regarding Mormon (Latter-day Saint) culture and naming patterns.

    First, through much of the 20th century, it was quite common for LDS women to retain and use their maiden names as their 'new' middle name (cf. this table of contents from a 1951 edition of the Relief Society Magazine). I suspect two influences: identification of family (particularly given that the Intermountain West was founded from scratch by Mormons) and feminist inclinations (no, really; go do research on LDS women and suffrage movements during the late 19th and early 20th century).

    Second — and this is a trend that is still very active — men and women called to general (full-time, world-wide) leadership positions in the LDS Church are almost universally identified in official Church publications, etc., as (first name) (middle initial) (surname) or, when the individual goes by his/her middle name, (first initial) (middle name) (surname). Thus, the president of the LDS Church is always referred to in Church publications and broadcasts as "Thomas S. Monson", never "Thomas Monson". ..bruce..

  46. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    @Bloix, my personal favorite example of the "Kingman Brewster" pattern is Burnside Winslow, Yale Class of 1904. You know it's a good one because I can never recall whether it's the way it is or is instead Winslow Burnside, but Google means I can now confirm which way is right without having to go to New Haven and remember which room in Mory's has it carved into the woodwork.

  47. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    @Ben Martin and Jonathan Mayhew,

    Not sure who originally came up with this, but I have seen a number of humorous observances that when three is a mention of a person going by all three names, they are either a serial killer/assassin or a child actor.

  48. Mike Keesey said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    "Michael Jackson, who died June 25, left behind three children: son Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince Michael, 12; daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 11; and son Prince Michael Jackson II, 7. Nowhere have I seen what the younger son is called. 'Prince Two?'"

    Apparently he is called "Blanket".

  49. Tom Recht said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    And then there's the sub-genre of symmetrical names:

    Said Jerome K. Jerome to Ford Madox Ford,
    'There's something, old boy, that I've always abhorred:
    When people address me and call me "Jerome",
    Are they being standoffish, or too much at home?'
    Said Ford, 'I agree;
    It's the same thing with me.'

  50. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    I like to use my full name of Daniel Harlow Lufkin because it anagrams to "a real hunk of ill wind". I'm a great believer in truth in labeling.

  51. Robert E. Harris said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    In my father's family, my father and his next older brother were known by their middle names. I did not know my uncle Elton was George Elton until he became pastor of the Berkeley Baptist Church and had us added to the mailing list for their weekly bulletin. I don't know what the two older boys were called in the family. Though my father was Elverd to his siblings, my mother called him Bob, so I was Robert to the family.

    I used to carry a list of three name artists (because I often forgot their names.) John Stuart Curry and George Caleb Bingham are the ones I can remember today. (There is (or was) a Curry painting of a tobacco plant, much like the more famous corn plant painting, in the city library of Garnett, Kansas.) Henry Varnum Poore just came back.

  52. Craig said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    As an aside, one of the reasons that middle names are commonly used in crime reporting, specifically when referring to those convicted, is that it more accurately pinpoints exactly which Lee Oswald or John Gacy we are referring to. It's the same reason that crime reports state the precise address of the defendant (less common these days, but still reasonably well observed). If you ensure that no-one else with the same name as the criminal you are referring to could be construed as the subject of the report then there is much less chance of someone with the same name suing for defamation (libel) for being connected with a crime. Middle names are an insurance policy for reporters.

  53. Peter Howard said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    I only have two names (I clearly had a deprived childhood), so most of this discussion is over my head. Except that I'm now worried that I'm an incipient serial killer.

  54. George Amis said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    I suspect that American southern naming has (or had) a slightly special set of meanings. My older brother was named for his father. I was named for my mother's father: George Townsend Amis, and that's what my birth certificate says. Both of these are pretty typical choices, I think. But at my baptism, my mother's father, a Virginian who had desperately wanted a son (my mother was an only child) insisted that I be given his full name: George Bland Townsend Amis, hoping that I would eventually drop my last name. So I'm one thing in the eyes of the state, and another in the eyes of the church.

    (On another note, my brother's wife's family had what always struck me as an interesting and efficient naming pattern: eldest sons were alternately named Thomas Berrimond Scott and Berrimond Thomas Scott. There was a lot less confusion than there is in families which use the same name.)

  55. theophylact said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    I'm friendly with an old South Carolina family whose oldest sons have been named Benjamin Franklin [Familyname] for at least seven generations. But they're always called Ben and Frank in strict generational alternation.

  56. Eyebrows McGee said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    I use my middle initial because I think it looks nice on the letterhead. :) It's a pretty common use in the midwest; you see entire law firms of Joe F. Smith and John G. Bailey and so on.

    As for women going First Maiden Married, to me that's something my mother's generation (Boomers) did. Women of my generation (around where I am, anyway) mostly either keep their own name or take their husband's, full stop. I guess because if you want to keep your own now, you don't have to take your husband's as well to keep your own. I don't even know many hyphenators.

    In my family, repeat first names don't go by middle names; they get unique nicknames that may or may not be remotely related to their names.

  57. dr pepper said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    My family was strictly nuclear, we only saw our parents' families on very rare visits, perhaps a dozen total. So there was little likelihood of confusion. Nonetheless we were all given names from said relatives (i always referred to them as `dynastic' names) and 5 out of the 6 of us were always called by our middle names. I dropped my first name one day on the way to renewing my driver's license, while my siblings simpley reversed the order of their names. Only two of those names, namely my father's first and middle, survived into the next generation.

  58. Joe Fineman said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    I brought this fashion up on alt.usage.english some years ago. It seemed to me at the time that it was common for 19th- and early 20th-century American dignitaries of all kinds to be called by all three names, but FDR was probably the end of the line. That was absurd — how could I possibly have forgotten John Foster Dulles, Oveta Culp Hobby, John Kenneth Galbraith, Clare Booth Luce, and — who was that orotund clergyman?

  59. Kim said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

    A few more data points.

    My father's side is working-class, with some Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, from Indiana. One of my cousins is known to the family as "Lynnie Sue", but I only know her sister by first name. Similar to that, when I was little my family called me "Kimmy Sue" and my sister "Chrissy Lou". In my experience, this diminutive first + diminutive second name is often a sign of so-called "redneck" families. Not necessarily Southern, but usually poor.

    Ordinarily, I sign my name First middle initial last. If it's very formal, or an airline ticket post-9/11, or such, then I'll use First, (full) Middle, Last. On Facebook I use First Maiden Last to help old friends and classmates find me.

    Also, my grandfather forgot to give my mother a first name at birth. When she married, she took the initial of her maiden name as her middle name.

    I've also seen a historical family surname used as middle name, not surprisingly among WASP families.

  60. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 10:42 pm

    a. If you go back to the beginning (or perhaps prehistory) of linguistics as a separate scholarly discipline in American universities, you can't help running across William Dwight Whitney, who seems to generally be known by all three names.

    b. I took a look at a chronological list of Supreme Court justices, as a historical sequence of prominent and (until recent decades) generally Waspy Americans. We now have John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who exemplify patterns somewhat different from the one under discussion (the now-retired Sandra Day O'Connor has the same pattern as RBG). But I would say the last Justice who really exemplifies the pattern under discussion (middle name from a surname; conventionally known by all three names) would be Harlan Fiske Stone, who died in 1946.

  61. Alexis said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

    For another university-presidents data point, there's a Rice University page at listing the presidents, of whom some are listed with three full names, some with two, and the most recent past president with first initial+middle. I had no idea he had the first initial, so the listings don't necessarily correspond to usage. Edgar Odell Lovett is consistently referred to that way, though. The current president is listed with his middle initial, but normal usage doesn't include it.

  62. seriously said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

    Just adding to the list: W.E.B. DuBois, a rare (to me at least) case of using three initials, and Sarah Orne Jewett, who never married, so Orne is not her maiden name.

  63. monkeytypist said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

    Many celebrities and artists with triple-barrel names are in fact using noms de plume to distinguish themselves from others in the field or to otherwise present a certain image.

    For example, "J K Rowling" is a creation of a publishing company; plain old Joanne Rowling didn't have a middle name, and her publishers urged her to use initials as a nom de plume so that the adolescent males who were the original Harry Potter target audience wouldn't suspect they were reading a book written by a woman. She chose the K to stand for "Kathleen", who I believe was her grandmother.

    Similarly with a number of others – David Foster Wallace was just David Wallace in his everyday life. In Hollywood, my understanding is cinematic guild rules actually require that you take a distinguishing middle initial or middle name where needed – thus William H Macy et al.

  64. dr pepper said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 12:10 am

    Charles! Nelson! Riley!

  65. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 12:56 am

    From music: Michael Tilson Thomas, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, John Eliot Gardiner, Dennis Russell Davies, John Philip Sousa. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performed under her birth name and husband's family name. All these are referred to by all three names–I've never seen "Arturo Michelangeli," though the likelihood of confusion with some other Arturo Michelangeli seems small.

  66. Robert E. Harris said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 1:11 am

    Archer Butler Hulbert wrote and edited quite a lot of American historical material, much of it related to old trails and roads. He worked in the first third of the 20th century. I used to call him the man with no given name.

  67. fred said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 1:52 am

    Anthony Michael Hall, Thomas Alva Edison (used only sometimes), James Earl Jones, Martin Luther King, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Lee Roth, Hillary Rodham Clinton, etc…

  68. Bob Ladd said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 2:40 am

    It's not even 24 hours since I sent my original note to Mark (thanks for posting, Mark!), but here are a few comments on all the comments.

    – First, the British/American differences – it's very noticeable to Americans that British names don't usually mix a name and an initial (as in John W. Smith) and very noticeable to Britons that American names usually do. The British solution outlined by several commenters (either John Smith or J. W. Smith) is certainly what I concluded when I arrived on this side of the Atlantic. Also, the class connotations in Britain (or at least England) of having lots of names (initialled or otherwise) are very clear.

    – Second, the many comments on Southern or Mormon or Pennsylvania usage actually show a lot of similarities, and are roughly consistent with my own experience (my own background is New England): (1) "Bob" is actually based on my middle name (Robert) because I'm named after my father, with "Jr." on the end; (2) "Robert" is actually my father's mother's maiden name; and (3) people always want to make "D. Robert Ladd" into "Robert D. Ladd". That last fact has always puzzled me – given that Americans like to mix initials and given names, and given that they are often called by their middle name rather than their first name, why don't they get the order right? (Speakers of other languages, for whom the whole business of mixing names and initials is just weird, can be forgiven – I remember a secretary in Germany asking me, when I had corrected "Robert D. Ladd" to "D. Robert Ladd", how you decided where the initial goes.)

    – Third, in my original comment I deliberately excluded firstname-maidenname-marriedname, though that too seems to have been very common in the 1850-1950 period (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe). I have the same impression as Eyebrows McGee that this pattern was more common among Baby Boomers than it is now – among linguists, only Barbara Hall Partee comes to mind. More generally, my colleague Miriam Meyerhoff pointed out to me yesterday that the three-name pattern is "very male", which (leaving aside first-maiden-married) I think is largely true. (But in that case can anyone explain Sarah Jessica Parker?)

    – Finally, thanks to Lane, Mark Justice Hinton, and a few others for talking about how the three-part name just feels right. This reinforces my original thought that there is some socio/semantic substance to this pattern. But obviously, it's not just for historians.

  69. Dionne said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 2:53 am

    The Afrikaners also tend to name their children for the grandparents, which resulted in lots of people with the same name, such as Hendrik Jacobus. To get around this they invented derivations of the names – Hendrik became Hennie, Hein, Henk, Drikus and so on. Jacobus would be Jaco, Kobus, Cobus, Koos etc. A glance at any South African telephone will give many many pages of Johan du Plessis, but in reality, they may be called Jannie, Jan, Hantie, Joe, or even Jody.

    My middle name is de Villiers, which is not my mother's maiden name, but one of my father's names. He is the only one of four brothers to have the de Villiers (originally his mother's maiden name) as a middle name. Since our surname is Smith, my father made the decision to be known as de Villiers Smith (not hyphenated), and my brother also uses it as a double-barrel. Since I married, I kept the name as a middle name but do not use it in conjunction with my surname. This occasionally causes confusion, because I always give my full (written) name as Dionne de Villiers Barnard, and I have often been called Ms de Villiers in an official capacity (e.g. at the bank or at a hotel where full name is required for registration), but in actuality I am Dionne De Villiers Smith Barnard, which is quite a mouthful.

  70. Larry Olin Horn said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 4:22 am

    I use all three names simply because Larry Horn isn't an uncommon name — no need for the more famous/notorious ones to get blamed for my mutterings.

    In college I sometimes used my middle name or went by "ell-oh" (and got very tired of "Hello, ell-oh!") — particularly the time I shared a suite with two other Larrys.

    I either sign with my full name, or use just my initials. I never use a middle initial unless forced to by a form. However, I did affectedly sign papers with "L. Olin Horn" for a while in high school.

  71. Nick Z said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 5:07 am

    @Ginger Yellow, @Bob Ladd: I was at a conference in America last year in which the plenary speaker, an American long working in the UK, was gently ribbed for having 'lost' his middle name by conforming to British nomenclature habits.

    The difference between British and American habits is of course particularly obvious in academia.

  72. Nigel said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    Stevie Ray Vaughan

    I once asked him, before his death, why he added the Ray to his name, which he hadn't been using before.

    He didn't answer.

  73. theophylact said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    J.E.B. Stuart was known to his friends (and history) as "Jeb", but he used the full set of initials.

    The military historian "Slam" Marshall was S.L.A. Marshall (full name, Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall).

    Paracelsus was born Phillip von Hohenheim, but he renamed himself Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim.

  74. egaliede said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    I am amazed to find out that the American south has such a tradition of people going by their middle names. Where I live, in Canada, it's almost unheard of and an administrative nightmare for anyone who is so blessed.

    I have four names – Sarah (Middle name) (Last name)-Carr, and go by the two in the middle, because they are considerably less common. A lot of people seem to have a hard time dealing with this – at the doctor's office, of all places, I often get called from the waiting room by the name of Sarah Carr. Sarah (last name)-Carr I could understand, but why they drop one half of my last name is beyond me.

  75. Andrew Clegg said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    My mother (Northern Irish Protestant) has *three* given names and goes by the third one, just because she likes it the best out of all of them. But that's just a single data point, I have no idea how common that is.

    On an unrelated note… As a British academic I'm fairly used to seeing the "Jesus H. Christ" pattern even among Brits, where as someone else noted, it's a good way to disambiguate authorship.

    Not that it works reliably. I got contacted by a publisher asking if I wanted to turn my thesis on hydraulic pumps into a book — wrong Andrew Clegg, different middle initial. I almost said "yes" to see how far I could string them along…

  76. Kenny Christian said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    I moved from Los Angeles to Germany some years ago and have experienced something quite interesting here that I would never had expected. My last name is unheard of as a last name but is a rather common first name. Kenneth is an unheard of name all together. Consequently, no matter what form written or electronic, where I fill in the boxes, last name, first name, the people reverse it and call me Mr. Kenneth.

    In Germany you do not name your child whatever name you feel like. So I figure, they figured, I could not figure out the form. I can not quote any law but in general you have to name your kid so they (the government) can tell what the gender is. Don't try any made up names or something like Tiger or Moon either. Also, many German people use double first names and although middle names exist are not so common as in America. Perhaps it is heavy European influence and heritage that affects the way Americans at the turn of the century used their names.

  77. Eoin said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Here in Ireland it is common for someone be given a parent's or grandparent's name as a firstname and then be known by their middle name.

    For example my wife was given the first name Sarah and second name Michelle. Sarah was her grandmother's name.
    But, a cousin of her's born just before her, was given the first name Sarah too. So, quickly the younger Sarah, (my wife) became known only by her middle name, Michelle.

    Somewhat similar is my Dad, known as Aidan. He was baptised Lawrence Aidan. His father also had the first name Lawrence.
    So rather than have two Lawrences in the one family, he became known as Aidan.

  78. AlexM said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    This discussion reminds of the Soviet practice whereby famous revolutionaries would always respectfully be referred to by their initials (В. И. Ленин, Я. М. Свердлов etc.), bourgeois authors could not be accorded this honour; thus Russians persist in referring to Герберт Уэллс, Алан Милн and Томас Элиот. When I first encountered this it took me quite some time to realise that Герберт Уэллс was H. G. Wells.

  79. Ken Brown said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Richard Gadsden said: "Hmmm, I wonder if some of these are unhypenated compound surnames rather than conventional middle names. Certainly, quite a few of them are adopted from mothers' or grandmothers' maiden names."

    I think that sounds exactly right.

    There seems to be a habit in Scotland (or in some communities in Scotland) of quite ordinary people using both the mother's and the father's surname (as in Spain?). That's much rarer in England I think, except perhaps among the landowning gentry as was.

    I've often speculated (though I have no idea how you would go about demonstrating it) that this has set up a "name pump" that converts Scottish surnames to English personal names. Scots (or one lot of Scots) used compound surnames in a way that sounded like personal names to the English (or to another lot of Scots). Some people liked the names and used them as personal names even if they have no connexion to any family with that surname. So Scots names like "Gordon" and "Grant" and indeed "Scott" became ordinary boys names in England.

    But that hasn't happened to any very common surnames in England – you don't come across many people calling their children Smith or Jones or Brown, Williams, Wright, White , Walker or Green. (Amongst the most common surname sin England that don't end in "-son") But you do see boys called Stuart/Stewart, Scott, Reid/Reed, Murray, Clark, Mitchell, Ross all among the top 20 Scottish names (as are Smith, & Brown of course, I think Brown is a relatively more common name in Scotland than in England, so I'm not going to hold this up as rigorous proof!). And why is it always boys who get called these surname-names, not girls?

    Bob Ladd said: "- First, the British/American differences – it's very noticeable to Americans that British names don't usually mix a name and an initial (as in John W. Smith) and very noticeable to Britons that American names usually do. The British solution outlined by several commenters (either John Smith or J. W. Smith) is certainly what I concluded when I arrived on this side of the Atlantic. Also, the class connotations in Britain (or at least England) of having lots of names (initialled or otherwise) are very clear."

    I'm not sure they are that clear. Multiple surnames sound posh to us. But multiple personal names don't so much, not if they are ordinary names. A lot of this seems to conform to local or even family traditions. It is as if there are almost "micro-ethnicities" of naming conventions, different strands living side-by-side. Some of it relates to class, but some of it doesn't.

    For my own example People Like Us, whoever "We" are, don't use double-barrelled surnames, and don't use multiple surnames but do often have more than one given name. Usually three. Also we don't like to name children after their parents – but we do name them after grandparents, so you can en up being given the same name as your parent by accident. Next door someone may be using a completely different system. I don't know if that is a matter of "culture" or "tradition" or really just personal preference (but where do such preferences come from if not culture or tradition? Presumable no-one has a congenital preference for double-barrelled surnames and against multiple given names?)

    Andrew Clegg said: "My mother (Northern Irish Protestant) has *three* given names and goes by the third one, just because she likes it the best out of all of them. But that's just a single data point, I have no idea how common that is."

    Most of my family are named like that. Two, or more likely three given names, and choose the one you like best. And a lot of our relatives are originally from Northern Ireland (though more Catholic than Protestant) and others from the Glasgow area. I wonder if that is my "People Like Us"?

    But we don't use initials normally. I'm Robert Kenneth John Brown, but RKJ Brown is only likely to come out of the woodwork if I wrote a scientific paper and wanted to be easy to find in searches And R Kenneth J Brown would be for filling in forms only.

  80. Joe Fineman said,

    July 5, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    Norman Vincent Peale.

  81. Picky said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 7:39 am

    The habit of modern (well, modernish – I am after all very old) British prime ministers of dropping first names extends beyond Wilson and Callaghan to (James) Ramsay MacDonald, (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain, (Robert) Anthony Eden, (Maurice) Harold Macmillan and our very dear (James) Gordon Brown. I'm not sure about (Andrew) Bonar Law … and, anyway, he was Canadian really.

  82. tanyasingsdido said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    Bob Ladd –

    Re Sarah Jessica Parker, I always assumed it was because Sarah Parker just sounds a bit plain for a movie star. See also Mary Louise Parker and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Either that or the need, as many above have mentioned, to differentiate from others in the trade.

  83. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    "For my own example People Like Us, whoever "We" are, don't use double-barrelled surnames, and don't use multiple surnames but do often have more than one given name. "

    Yes, but the question is whether those names are used in ordinary circumstances or not. I have a middle name, but I never use it except when required to on official forms. Most of my friends don't even know what it is.

  84. Bobbie said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    And then there are the cases where the father is George and the son is named George, so they are called Big George and Little George. Which works for a while, but then suppose adult Little George towers over his father. Or the phone call comes to the house for "George" and the family has to inquire which George is the "right" one. This leads to a lot of confusion!

  85. Dan T. said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    The song "Jessie" by Joshua Kadison has sometimes been claimed to be about Sarah Jessica Parker, thus implicitly claiming that she went by a diminuative of her middle name; however, this "fact" is apparently not reliably sourced and has presently been dropped from the relevant Wikipedia articles.

  86. Graham said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    @Bobbie: in my family there was a "Big Arthur" who was the father of "Little Arthur". Little Arthur was at least twice the size of Big Arthur.

    In my father-in-law's Scottish family, all eleven children, male and female, were given second, and sometimes third, names that were 'ancestral', so that Rachel had the middle name Grieve, for instance, James was Spottiswoode and Charles was Webster. Any of these pairs of names could have become unhyphenated double-barrelled names had they chosen to make it so, but none of them did, and the middle names were rarely used, except as initials. Similarly my own son has his mother's maiden name as a middle name, but rarely if ever uses it, even as an initial.

  87. Amy said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    Re: "In Hollywood, I believe that there's a guild convention that each currently active member of e.g. the actor's union has to have a unique name for credits, so some actors (maybe screenwriters too?) will in the professional context consistently use a middle name or initial for differentiation purposes because someone who was already in the business already had the basic first/last combination locked up."

    Michael J. Fox writes in his book Lucky Man: "The Screen Actors Guild prohibits any two members from working under the same stage name, and they already had a 'Michael Fox' on the books. My middle name is Andrew, but 'Andrew Fox' or 'Andy Fox' didn't cut it for me. 'Michael A. Fox' was even worse, the word fox having recently come into use as a synonym for attractive. (Presumptuous?) […] And then I remembered one of my favorite character actors, Michael J. Pollard, the guileless accomplice in Bonnie and Clyde. I stuck in the J […]."

    Also, my university e-mail and other various usernames I have are a combination of my first and middle names (, mostly because I just like my middle name, but also because Amy Ela is significantly less common than my first and last names, Amy Smith.

  88. Matthias Neeracher said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    Regarding Nicholas Waller's list of SF authors, one additional twist is that Iain Banks goes by "Iain M. Banks" for his SF novels, but just "Iain Banks" for his "mainstream fiction" novels.

  89. Irina said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 4:06 am

    @egaliede: "Sarah (last name)-Carr I could understand, but why they drop one half of my last name is beyond me."

    Perhaps because the receptionist is of Dutch extraction– married Dutchwomen can [1] go by Firstname Marriedname-Maidenname, where the maiden name is the 'official' name.

    My situation is a bit more complex: I was called just "Firstname Maidenname" and added a name in front of it, making my original first name into a middle name (I used Irina Middle-initial Maidenname); then I married someone with a more convenient last name than mine with the same initial as my middle initial, so I now use Irina Marriedname because it would be silly with the initial.

    [1] The Marriedname-Maidenname construction used to be the default, with only professional married women going by Maidenname professionally. When I married (in 1993) I had to explicitly say, and say again, and go back to the town hall to say once again, that I wanted to use my married name. These days just about anything seems to be normal: even men take their wife's name occasionally.

  90. dr pepper said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 1:08 pm


    Hmm. I would have thought that HG Wells would count as an honorary revolutionary at least.

    As for hollywood, how could we forget Jennifer Love Hewitt?

  91. Emily I said,

    July 8, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    It has always been my understanding (and, for the record, I am Southern – NC) that a married woman's Given Maiden Married construction was a replacement of any original middle name, not a double surname, which would usually by hyphenated. My sister considered keeping her original middle name (our mother's maiden name, incidentally) when she got married instead, but eventually went with her maiden name, following the pattern cited above. Hyphenating the last name is still a bit feminist in my mind. There are always exceptions, but that is the standard pattern.

    Also, note that Hewitt was credited as Jennifer "Love" Hewitt early on (See "Sister Act II"), which led me to believe it wasn't her real or original middle name. The internet is unclear (imdb, wikipedia), but does say it was given to her by her mother.

  92. Terry Collmann said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 4:32 am

    Percy Bysshe Shelley was named after his grandfather, who got his middle name from his mother, nee Hellen [sic] Bysshe. He was apparently always called Bysshe …

    The habit of using surnames as first names, incidentally, in the UK at least, is meant to show some link with the aristocracy – all the commonest "surnames used as first names", from Stewart (kings of Scotland and dukes of various places) to, er, Percy (dukes of Northumberland) are aristocratic family surnames..

    The habit of giving eldest sons the same first name as their father seems to have been common in Britain from the 17th century, at least, onwards – the Lucas family of Hitchin, Hertfordshire (Quakers, as it happens – not sure if this made any diference) had at least eight straight generations of William Lucases. They also generally named the second son Samuel, who would generally call HIS eldest son Samuel, and so on into the distance … as far as I'm aware, none of them used middle names, so what they did when there were three generations of Wiliam Lucases in the same room, I don't know …

    My (real) first and last names can be reversed in order to make a perfectly fine-looking new name, and indeed there is a Latino-American politician who, minor spelling tweaks apart, has just that name, but I've only once been called "Surname Firstname" in all the years of ringing up and leaving messages saying "my name is surname – firstname surname.".

  93. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    July 9, 2009 @ 5:31 am

    I don't know what Billy Bob Thornton's birth family calls him, but I call him "Billy", not "Billy Bob."

  94. John Cowan said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    The systems scientist C. West Churchman was a student of my father's; he was universally called West. He told me once that he adopted that form of his name because he was permanently sick of being called "Chuck".

  95. Peter said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    Another couple of data points:

    My father's parents decided they wanted him to be called David and his other name to be Ian. They decided that initials of D.I.M. were not the best idea, so they named him Ian David and he's been known by his middle name all his life. Caused a bit of confusion for my mother shortly after they married when someone was looking for "Ian".

    When I was in primary school there was a new kid joining the class and the teacher gave us the name James Crystal. Her name was Crystal James. Her brother was Clifford James which is similarly reversible.

  96. Jim said,

    March 10, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    From Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins":

    Why do these rednecks always have three names? James Earl Ray. John Wilkes Booth —

    Lee Harvey Oswald!

    (To which I added, in the 90s: "Sally Jesse Raphael!")

  97. B Bland said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

    Obviously, none of you have been spending much time working on your family tree or the history of the founding of these United States. Otherwise, you would know that the founding families of Virginia were mostly of British origin and used the English naming rules for both sons and daughters in order to keep track of their maternal as well as paternal lines.

    Under these fairly rigid rules, the first son was named for his father, second son for his paternal grandfather, third for his maternal gfather, fourth and following for his father's brothers. They followed the same rules for their daughters. This system allowed these huge families to keep track of their relatives.

    Also, contrary to modern misinformation, these families valued their daughters and their maternal lines just as they did their paternal. Those middle names were the means of carrying those maternal surnames foward. And, just as their sons were often college educated (at least as early as the 1600's), their daughters were educated sufficiently to home-school both sons and daughters in the 3 R's (and sometimes beyond) until they were old enough for time spent with their fathers or tutors or boarding school or college, the latter often as early as age 15 or 16. This practice also was occurring as early as the 1600's. Historical documents prove these home-schooling and estate-managing mom's were usually the legal administrators of their husbands' estates and legal guardians of their children.

    Examples abound, but I'll only proffer these. Our fellow commenter above, George Bland Townsend Amis, is likely a descendant of Richard Bland (1710-1776) who served in the First and Second Continental Congresses, the Virginia House of Burgesses for 30 years, and was first to draft in 1766 the legal foundation for American political independence based on British law dating back hundreds of years and pre-dating the Magna Carta. Richard was educated at William and Mary College and the University of Edinburgh. Orphaned at age 10, he was raised and educated by his mother's family, and he served beside his first cousin, Peyton Randolph (President of the First Continental Congress), his sister's husband, Richard Henry Lee, and his first cousin's (Jane Randolph) son, Thomas Jefferson, among others. Lest you think he was just a lazy, bookish, panty-waist lawyer, he rode his thoroughbred (horse) between his home and Philadelphia to attend the Congresses though he was in his mid-60's and nearly blind–while still managing from "out-of-town" the hard-earned wealth he left his six sons and six daughters.

    I suspect that his son's (Cpt. Edward Bland), son's (Dr. John Bland), son's (Dr. George C. Bland), daughter's (Eva Janet Bland), son (George Bland Townsend) wanted his own daughter's son to remember where he came from and to be recognizable to his cousins when we stumbled across him. Though we are on his maternal side, we likely share some important genes as we obviously are attracted to similar issues and websites.

    For the second example, this Richard Bland's niece, Frances Bland, home-schooled her sons and daughters while managing thousands of acres as executrix of her first husband's estate to preserve the inheritance he had intended for his children even though John Randolph died after only six years of marriage. While preserving all of that, as well as fixing her hair and looking pretty, this "Southern belle" bore several more children with her second husband and home-schooled them, too. Some of Frances Bland Randolph Tucker's children include John Randolph of Roanoke (Virginia lawyer and statesman), Henry St George Tucker (president of the Virginia Court of Appeals as well as a captain of cavalry in the War of 1812) and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker (Missouri circuit court judge and William and Mary College professor of law).

    Though the above lists are long and could be longer, this southern family was not out of the norm. And lest you assume these families migrated only across the South, you should follow some of their cousins north– Theoderick Bland (Chancellor of Maryland), Col. Peter Edward Bland (St Louis lawyer and colonel in the Union Army under Sherman), Dr. Edward Parke Bland (St Louis physician and educator)–to name a few.

    Incidentally James Ewell Brown Stuart was also a Randolph cousin, descended from William Randolph Jr and his wife Elizabeth Beverley.

  98. Steve Sailer said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 12:55 am

    The Eliot in Samuel Eliot Morison showed off the very prominent mother's side of his family, which included T.S. Eliot and Charles Eliot, the most important president in Harvard history. The man of letters Charles Eliot Norton is a similar case.

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