As genealogists, we focus a lot on surnames: what they mean, where they come from, and how we can use them to trace our families back through history. First names receive a lot of attention, too, since they help us identify particular ancestors.
But what about the middle name — that elusive, often-ignored name between the first and the last that so many people in Western culture have? First names make sense: we need to be able to get each other’s attention and refer to each other in conversation. Last names make sense too, especially in larger communities where there may be multiple people with the same first name. But why do people have middle names? Why do our parents bother to give us a name we barely ever use?
Middle names lighten the first name’s load
The key to understanding why we have middle names is more fully understanding the role first names play in society.
Yes, first names give us a way to refer to each other and ourselves in conversation. But as any parent who’s had to choose a name for their child knows, first names are often much more than that. They carry meaning that we hope will have significance in the child’s life, whether it’s a positive trait or a wish for the child’s future. They may also carry the legacy of an ancestor, a loved one, or a spiritual role model. In traditional Christian societies, it was commonplace for children to be named after various saints, because it was believed that the saint would protect a child named after him or her.
It appears that the practice of naming children after saints was what eventually gave rise to middle names. What happens if you want to name your daughter Mary after the saint, but you also want to name her Elizabeth after her recently passed grandmother? You can give her two names instead of one.
Middle names spread through Europe and to the U.S.
Historian Stephen Wilson, author of The Means of Naming: A Social History, says that this practice probably began among the elite class in Italy as early as the 1200s, and eventually spread to Spain and France as well as the lower classes. In the first decade of the 19th century, over 50% of boys in France had just one first name, while 37% had a middle name as well and 8% had two middle names (3 given names in all). By the end of the 19th century, the number of boys with just one name was under 33%, while 46% of boys had two given names and 23% had 3.
It took a while longer for the practice to reach England and Scotland. British historian William Camden wrote in 1605 that having two Christian names was rare in England, and Stephen Wilson writes that only 10% of the British population had a middle name in 1800. During the 19th century, middle names became much more popular across Western European cultures, and the trends in the United States reflected that.
How middle names are used
The prevailing notion of middle names in Anglophone societies is that they are only used on legal documents… or when your mom is really, really mad at you. But the “extra” name didn’t always come second, and it wasn’t always routinely ignored. In Spanish societes, for example, it was common to name all of one’s daughters Maria, but with different middle names that were used in daily life. In other cases, people may have switched between their first and middle names at different times of their lives.
Sometimes middle names were a family or community tradition: a particular middle name may have been given to all the boys in a family, for example. In one local tradition, a baby who was the first to be baptized by a new clergyman took his last name as a middle name.
Ultimately, middle names are there to strengthen family and societal ties and express the family’s values and religious commitments.
How do middle names help us as genealogists?
From a genealogist’s perspective, middle names are useful in a number of ways:
- They can help us identify an ancestor much more easily. It’s easier to confirm the identity of a John Howard Smith born in 1915 than a John Smith born in the same year.
- They can teach us about family relationships. When we look at the family tree, we can see who may have been named after whom, and we might identify a middle-naming tradition that teaches us about a particularly cherished or legendary ancestor.
- They can teach us about our ancestors’ values and religious beliefs, especially when their children were named after saints.
Sometimes we may not even know that an ancestor had a middle name, and only learn of it when we encounter it in the historical records! Even just a middle initial can serve as a stepping stone to identifying ancestors and discovering what their middle name might have been.
The MyHeritage historical record search engine is flexible enough to account for missing middle names and help you discover information about your ancestors you may not have known. Check it out and search for your ancestors — you never know what you might discover.