Middle names: yes or no?


I wanted to write about middle names for this piece, and when I sat down to do so it was with a blustery sort of confidence that I had a pretty good sense of middle naming as a practice, particularly among Catholic families.


This is what I found: There don’t seem to be any hard-and-fast rules about middle names.

In Euro-American tradition, it seems middle names started in Europe both as a status symbol (the more names you had, the higher your social class, at least in appearance) as well as a way to accommodate the desire for both saints’ names and family names. In America specifically, “[m]iddle names had started to become more or less official by World War I, when the U.S. enlistment form became the first official government document to include space for them.” (source, source)

But despite our country’s basic first-middle-last naming structure, and the fact that on some official forms there is such a need for something in the middle that NMN or NMI (“No Middle Name” or “No Middle Initial”) or even X (done by computers) is routinely entered in the middle name spot, I know several women (including my mom, my maternal grandmother, and one of my best friends from college) and two men (my father-in-law and my maternal uncle), all of whom were born in America, who were not given middle names at birth. In my everything-is-seen-through-a-Catholic-lens way, I immediately latched onto the fact that none of the women used their Confirmation names as middle names, despite all being Catholic, but the men did legally used their Confirmation names as middle names. Somehow, I was sure, based on this sample set of five, not having been given a middle name had Catholic roots and had something to do with marriage (for girls) and Confirmation (for boys).

To Google I went, to find supporting evidence for my hypothesis; I also posed several questions about middle names to my blog asking for others’ experiences.

This is what I found: I can’t find evidence to overwhelmingly support one thing or another.

Some people seemed to agree that there was an old Catholic practice of not bestowing middle names, in order to make room for Confirmation names. I thought immediately of my own American-born Irish-Catholic paternal grandmother, who I always considered to have a first name and a middle name—but as with so many Irish Catholic girls, her first name was Mary, her middle name was Loretta, and she went by Loretta always—so perhaps it was considered a double first name instead, with no middle name? But then I have another uncle who does have a middle name, given at birth, though his sister and brother don’t.

Some indicated that the middle spot might have been left for the priest to fill with a saint’s name at baptism, to fulfill the old Canon Law (in effect from 1917 to 1983) that a saint’s name had to be part of a baptized person’s name. This might certainly be the case with a baby given his mother’s maiden name as a first name, for example, but certainly wasn’t the case with all of the people I know who weren’t given middle names (they have given names like Anne and Thomas).

Harry S TRuman 1973 Issue-8c

By Bureau of Engraving and Printing; Imaging by Gwillhickers (U.S. Post Office) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Some parents solve the middle name conundrum with only a letter—just an initial! Harry S Truman was one such—the S was a nod to his grandfathers, who both had names beginning with S. David McCullough, Truman’s biographer, actually noted that “using a single letter that stood for nothing specific was ‘a practice not unknown among the Scotch-Irish, even for first names.’” (source) One of my readers told how her great-grandparents couldn’t decide on Robert or Raymond as the middle name for their son, and so went with R—just R. (There are pitfalls with this practice, however, as I read about a person who was only given the middle initial L, and when forms were being filled out officials sometimes wrote “L only,” which led to the occasional misunderstanding that this person’s middle name was actually “Lonly.”)

The women who hadn’t been given middle names told me how much easier not having a middle name was when they married and took their husband’s last name—their maiden names moved easily into the middle name spot. One of my readers is familiar with the Mormon community, and said it’s very common for girls to not be given middle names, since marriage is mostly assumed. But with our understanding that the celibate single life and the religious life are vocations as completely valid as marriage for a woman as well, it seems limiting for parents to forego a middle name for their daughters for the sole reason of a potential future marriage.

Interestingly, all the people I know without middle names gave their children middle names. In the case of my college friend, she even gave a hyphenated double middle name to one of her girls, and my own no-middle-name mom gave two of my five siblings (a boy and a girl) two middle names, and one (a girl) a hyphenated double middle.

Given all that I was able to find (or not find) about Catholic middle naming in America, the only thing I can confidently say is this: Catholics are blessed to have Confirmation, both because of the graces of the Sacrament, and because those without middle names can have one if they want one.

What is your experience with and understanding of middle names? Do you have different thoughts about them depending on whether you’re naming a boy or a girl? Do you like multiple middle names, or just one, or just an initial, or nothing at all?


Copyright 2015 Katherine Morna Towne
Photos: Harry S. Truman signature by Connormah, Harry S. Truman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Harry S. Truman stamp by Bureau of Engraving and Printing; Imaging by Gwillhickers (U.S. Post Office) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


About Author

Kate is a writer, lifelong lover of names, wife to a really good man, and mama to their six boys ages 2 to 11. She shares her thoughts on Catholic baby naming at Sancta Nomina.


  1. There is a Southern tradition of not really having a name. Johnny Cash for example was named J.R. at birth. He decided that the J stood for John when he enlisted.

    Also there’s a tradition of naming people after other people. In some cases people have two middles names to avoid offending someone in the family.

    I’ve just assumed having a middle name was to distinguish people easier. In highschool I knew two girls both named Jennifer Crocker. To avoid confusing which one, they included their middle names.

    There’s also the popular phenomenon of naming a person after their dad but avoiding the Junior by having a different middle name. So John David and John Paul.

    Not sure about the Catholic practice other than it’s probably the result of culture rather than religious.

  2. Thanks for commenting! I never knew that about Johnny Cash, fascinating! Oh yes, definitely two middle names to avoid offense, as well as other reasons, and middle are great for distinguishing between people with the same first and last names (including juniors). Good examples, all! I was really thinking I would find something specific for Catholics, something that would explain why they might decide to forego the otherwise expected middle name … it’s all been really interesting to learn about!

  3. My grandmother born into a large Catholic German family in the early 1900s discovered as an adult that the name she and all (?) of her siblings used as “call names” we’re actually their middle names. I have no idea why this was the case as they all had saint names for both first and middle names. For example, while my grandmother was called Antoinette (nn Nettie) and thought her name was Antoinette Catherine it was actually Catherine Antoinette.

    • Isn’t that funny? I’m always interested to hear about namey things like this from back in people’s family trees. It’s also funny what people don’t know about their own names — my brother’s middle name is my grandfather’s first name, which was his mother’s maiden name — somehow I had always known that, but my brother, whose name it is, seemed to have no clue it was our great-grandmother’s maiden name.

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