Middle Names

a fruitless evening of dataset-hunting

Middle Names

My girlfriend likes to tease me that I suggested that when we have kids we call them Stafford and Buckminster. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that, but she particularly objected on the basis that not only are they silly and would get our kids turbo-bullied, they didn’t seem like first names. Middle names, maybe, or names for pets? They were, I insisted, but when I double-checked I realised that those aren’t their first names! They were Anthony Stafford Beer and Richard Buckminster Fuller1; their given names were their middle names.

For some reason I think of it as a historical practice—the only modern example that came to mind was George Osborne, I guess because his had a bit of a story behind it? But Wikipedia has furnished me with a host of other present-day household names who do so2, so I thought I might have a bit of a look and see whether this is, in fact, a historical phenomenon or not, but it proved annoyingly difficult to work out whether there are any trends. Before we can even get going, there are complicating factors: do we count people who use their first name as an initial, like J. Edgar Hoover? What about people who do it but not publicly? John Maynard Keynes, for instance, was known to his friends and family as “Maynard”3.

Even if we're just going by a strict and literal "you use your middle name as your first name in public matters", though, it's difficult to find any data to analyse. It's a definite, observable phenomenon, but it leaves very little trace. If people change their names that's going to be in a record of some kind, but going by a different name is more vaporous. None of the datasets I found had anything of use; I thought census forms might have a "given name" field, which might let us see where that differs from the standard name field, but no such luck, at least in the UK and US.

This is somewhat solitary work, too: as best I can tell from a quick look at Google Scholar, no-one else seems to have even tried answering anything close to the question as to whether there are any trends in usage of middle names as given names. The closest I found was a paper purporting to show that people who use middle initials are perceived as smarter—though I did also find this:

which didn't help, but did amuse me after a fruitless evening of searching. If you've got any ideas as to where I might find data on this, do give me a shout!

  1. This seems to have been a bit of a thing in cybernetics and systems theory for some reason—in addition to Beer we have Andrew Gordon Pask, William Ross Ashby and Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy. ↩︎
  2. weirdly, the three categories they choose to pull out are “American politicians”, “British politicians” and “high-level Nazis” ↩︎
  3. Another fun sidebar here is wrestlers, some of whom adopt their wrestling names in interpersonal matters. If you listen to the infamous CM Punk Art of Wrestling episode, he refers to Triple H (which stands for Hunter Hearst Helmsley, though his real name is Paul Levesque) as “Hunter” throughout, which always seemed very odd to me. ↩︎

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