What’s Up With Middle Names?

Wondering why people have middle names?

You’ve come to the right place!

The history and meaning behind middle names

Why a Middle Name? 

Why do westerners have middle names? I frequently receive this question in Taiwan. After all, middle names are absent in Chinese culture. Baffled and unsure of the answer, I could only ever respond with an unremarkable(1) “I don’t know.” 

Upon first thought, maybe it’s just a way for parents to scold(2) children more effectively. I certainly heard “STEPHEN MICHAEL” enough as a kid when I did something wrong, but that “Michael” never seemed to serve any other purpose. 

Digging a bit deeper, there are actually many historical reasons for having middle names. The story of middle names begins in ancient Rome and continues on throughout much of Europe until it finally ends up being ingrained in American culture during the 20th century. 

All Hail Gaius Julius Caesar 

Roman males usually had three different names, each with its own purpose: One was a personal name, and the other two marked your family and what branch of the family you were born into. The more names you had, the more respected you were. Not everyone was so lucky: women only had two names and slaves were only allowed one.

Despite the Roman’s admiration for multiple names and lineage, they didn’t truly have “middle names” as we know them today. 

Middle Names Enter the Middle Ages 

Long after the Roman Empire’s decline, who better to bring back the tradition of three names than the Italians? In the 1300s, upper-class Italians had middle names that were derived(3) from Christian saints(4). They believed that using the saints’ names would offer them protection. 

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It took hundreds of years for middle names to reach the most isolated parts of the country. During this period, it also spread to other places like France and Spain, where middle names also carried religious and social implications(5). 

According to Time, at the beginning of the 19th century, more than half the boys born in France had just one name, while by the end of the century, 46%of them had one middle name and 23% had two middle names. 

The UK is Late to the Party

Middle names didn’t really stick in England until the 19th century. Only 10% of the British population had a middle name at the onset of the 19th century. 

In Scotland, middle names become much more common after 1780. According to Alice Cook’s research into the names of Scottish children between 1680 and 1839, 99% of those who had middle names were born after 1780. 

America Needs You to Enlist in “The Great War”  

As waves of European immigrants arrived in the U.S., middle names were on the rise. It all culminated(6) with America’s entry in World War I. The enlistment(7) documents requested three names, not just two. 

Later, computers were also programmed to use three names. If someone didn’t include a middle name, the computer would automatically input NMI, which is a military abbreviation for “no middle initial.” 

The Uses of the Middle Name

Middle names have lost a lot of their original meaning. It’s common for modern parents to just pick names that they like or that they believe sound nice. 

If most middle names no longer hold a lot of meaning, you are probably rightly wondering, why keep them at all? Here are a few uses for middle names in the modern world. 

Initials(8): People may need to use their initials to fill out certain documents, and some people even include middle names in their signatures.  

Documents: Certain documents will require people to type in their “full name,” which includes their given name, their middle name, and their family name. 

Heritage(9): Some people like to give their children middle names that honor their relatives. For example, a baby may receive their grandfather’s first name as their middle name. 

Religious context: It is still common to meet people who share their middle names with a saint or religious figure, especially in religious communities. 

Fun: Believe it or not, middle names are a fun conversation topic for students, people on a first date, and for small talk in general. 

“Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons”.


1. unremarkable (adj.) 

Def. ordinary; not special in any way

Ex. We went to a pretty unremarkable restaurant. None of the food there was any good. 

2. scold (v.)

Def. to speak angrily to somebody, especially a child, because they have done something wrong

Ex. My mom scolded my brother for putting ants in my soup. 

3. derive (v.)

Def. to take, receive, or obtain especially from a specified source 

Ex. The name of the TV show was derived from a very old Chinese novel. 

4. saint (n.)

Def. a person that the Christian Church recognizes as being very holy, because of the way they have lived or died

Ex. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote the famous book Summa Theologica. 

5. implication (n.)

Def. something that is suggested or indirectly stated

Ex. The religious implications behind middle names cannot be ignored. 

6. culminate (v.)

Def. to end with a particular result, or at a particular point

Ex. Our efforts culminated in us receiving the best podcast of 2020 award. 

7. enlistment (n.)

Def. the act of joining the armed forces; the act of making somebody join the armed forces

Ex. The enlistment forms state that people under 18 require their parent’s signature and permission. 

8. initials(n.)

Def. the first letters of all the names of a person or thing

Ex. Walt Oliver Williams had the initials WOW. 

9. honor (v.)

Def. a person or thing that causes others to respect and admire something/somebody

Ex. I want to honor my professor by citing him as an inspiration in my latest book. 

10. heritage (n.) 

Def. something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor

Ex. His Italian heritage made him interested in learning more about the Roman Empire. 


/feedback-analytics-public-speaking by surdumihail 

Sculpture-julius-caesar-statue-art by Couleur

Church-stained-glass-windows by Free-Photos

Danaerys Targaryan from Game of Thrones by Deviant Art 

Ww1-flanders-belgium-remembrance by Mattredding