Why Do People Have Middle Names?

Middle names were originally introduced to differentiate between different people within the same family who had the same first and last names. In some cases, people may have more than one middle name. Middle names are also a convenient way to help set someone apart who may otherwise have a common first and last name.

Even though people may not put as much thought into them as first and last names, middle names have an interesting history regarding how people identify themselves culturally. Read on to learn more about the practice of middle naming and how it is reflected in naming conventions worldwide.

Why Do People Have Middle Names?
Why Do People Have Middle Names?

Origin of Middle Names

Middle names were historically rare until the late 1700s, with over 99% of the people listed with a middle name born after 1780. (Source: TIMEOpens in a new tab.) So, for centuries of human history, middle names never even came into the picture.

The use of a middle name is dependent entirely on the culture of the person with the name. Some cultures, such as Japan, reserve surnames or family/clan names for nobility, and people do not typically have middle names at all. The lack of middle names is common in cultures that emphasize the family name over the surname in genealogical importance. 

In other cultures, such as Germany, having multiple middle names is common, and it is not unusual for people to have two middle names or more. This is usually done to honor naming lineage from both parents. 

There are a few ways in which middle names differ from first or last names: 

  • Middle names are sometimes only a single initial, rather than a full name. 
  • Middle names—unlike first and last names—are a pretty recent tradition in Western culture. Not a single person aboard the Mayflower had a middle name. (Source: The Chicago Tribune)
  • Unlike first and last names, which are commonly known, a person’s middle name may remain largely secret except within their family circles. This is one of the reasons it has become a popular security question answer. 
  • While first and last names are considered more important in identification paperwork, middle names are often taken up by people who prefer their middle name to their first name. In these cases, a middle name may be used as a first name, or a combination of the first and middle names may be used to identify a person (ex. Jennie Lee). 

While middle names are fairly new in human history, they have become very popular in Western culture. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t have a middle name or two, especially if they’re from a culture that values middle names or if they were named for an older relative.

Why Do Some People Not Have Middle Names?

Despite their popularity, some people do not have middle names. Often, this is the result of being from a culture that doesn’t value middle names. Japan was used as an example earlier of a culture that does not traditionally use middle names, but many other Asian countries—such as Korea—also do not traditionally use middle names. This is common with other Southeast Asian countries as well, such as India.

The reasons for not having a middle name depend on the social status of a person’s ancestry. Historically, middle names were reserved for people in the upper class, so those who have a lower or middle-class ancestry may have been brought up in a familial tradition that doesn’t stress middle names. 

Also, a middle name may not be necessary in modern times because the first name is distinctive enough not to have much likelihood of a repeat in another person. 

Why Do People Have Middle Names?

Middle Names for Boys

For boys, middle names are often chosen from the names of ancestors from the males on either side of the family tree. Historically, there has been a preference for choosing a male surname from either the mother’s or the father’s side. 

The most popular middle names (Source: Ancestry.com) chosen for boys are often associated with royalty, and you’ll find the names of many kings here.

The most popular middle names for boys are: 

  • William
  • James
  • John
  • David
  • Charles
  • Edward
  • Peter
  • Lee
  • Alexander
  • Christopher
  • Michael
  • Daniel
  • Robert

More modern male middle names have gained popularity in recent years, such as nature-inspired Kai and Reed. Popular culture also affects popular naming conventions, and names attached to pop culture characters such as Anakin (from Star Wars) or Jax (from Sons of Anarchy) have begun to show up more often on birth certificates.

Middle Names for Girls

There is a lot of diversity when it comes to middle names for girls, but often a middle name for a girl is a way for the mother to keep part or all of their maiden name, and can also be used as a tribute to older female relatives in the family tree. For many girls, a simple one-syllable middle name (like Grace or Leigh) may be used to add rhythm and flow to a longer first or last name. 

The most popular middle names for girls are: 

  • Marie
  • Louise
  • Ann / Anne
  • Rose
  • Victoria
  • Lynn
  • Amy
  • Catherine
  • May / Mae
  • Elizabeth
  • Faith
  • Grace
  • Jane

(Source: Ancestry.com)

Regardless of what middle name is chosen for either a girl or a boy, science has proven that choosing a good name for your baby can have a lasting impact on them since it strongly influences both how they view themselves and how they are perceived by other people. (Source: Live Science)

In other words, it’s a good idea to think long and hard before saddling a baby with a “quirky” middle name—at least if you ever want them to be proud to tell people what it is when they grow up. 

Read more: 319 Common Middle Names

Where in the World Do People Use Middle Names?

Middle name usage is most common in Europe and North America. Asian countries such as Japan and India rarely have middle names unless they come from a mixed racial background or ethnicity. 

In areas of the world where middle names aren’t used, nicknames are often utilized instead to indicate informality since family and clan names take precedent over surnames in those countries. 

Famous People Middle Names

Celebrities are rather notorious for giving their children strange and unusual names. While this practice isn’t limited to middle names alone, the middle name is a name where famous parents often choose to kick loose with a quirky name. This is because middle names are rarely used except in formal documentation, so if the child doesn’t like their weird middle name, it doesn’t affect them that much in a negative way. 

Here are some of the most bizarre middle names in Hollywood and beyond (Source: People MagazineOpens in a new tab.): 

  • Keifer “William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus” Sutherland
  • Hugh “Mungo” Grant
  • Elton “Hercules” John
  • Rosalind “Arusha Arkadina Altalune Florence” Thurman-Busson
  • Pilot “Inspektor” Lee
  • Petal “Blossom Rainbow” Oliver

Needless to say, you’d have to be pretty rich and famous to carry off some of these kooky middle names! 

Middle Names Have an Interesting History

Modern society is fascinated with celebrity baby names, and many people choose their child’s name with meticulous care. Interestingly, middle names have only been a part of human naming conventions for a few hundred years. 

As the population of the world continues to skyrocket, and more people are born with the same first and last surnames, middle names are bound to only become more popular and distinctive with time.  

What is your middle name and how did you get it?


I just love everything about names. Here I ha’ve gathered everything about names in The United States and around the world...

Recent Posts

Why Do People Have Middle Names?