The Middle Name Illusion

Apr 6th 2016

Caution: Middle Names On Your List Are Smaller Than They Appear.

For most of us, the baby name hunt means looking for two names, a first and middle. The middle name is the junior partner, of course, but they're both baby names. We sweat over both choices to create the ideal three-part composition.

Then a funny thing happens. The child is born, and one name becomes an integral part of the fabric of our lives while the other name vanishes. The pre-birth prominence of the middle name turns out to have been an illusion.

The middle name illusion may seem harmless. What's wrong with having an attractive full name, after all? Yet misreading the impact of middle names can lead us astray in the whole naming process. I hear from a lot of parents in situations like these:

"We love Edward, but it's awkward to say with our surname Dwyer. We're looking for a smooth middle name to fix the rhythm -- maybe James?"

"Her middle name is going to be Doloris, after my grandmother. What's a first name that sounds good with Doloris?"

"We have really different tastes, so instead of struggling to find something we both like I suggested a compromise: I'll choose the first name, and he can choose the middle name."

These parents are all asking middle names to do jobs they aren't equipped to handle. A middle name your child will never be called can't fix a broken first-last pairing. A middle name chosen for sentiment rather than style shouldn't determine your style. And a compromise that leaves one parent holding only the middle name is no compromise at all. In each case, overestimating the middle name interferes with the first name decision.

The solution isn't to ignore middle names. It's to realize that a middle name -- assuming you don't use it on a daily basis -- is different in essence from a first name. Your first name is your interpersonal identity, a verbal face you present to the world. Your middle name doesn't do that job, but it can play other roles. For instance:

• Honoring relatives or family/cultural traditions.

• Attaching a special meaning or story to share with your child about her name. (E.g. naming after a personal hero, or a particular etymological meaning, or the place the child was born.)

• Creating an elegant full presentation for formal occasions.

• Embedding a "secret message" (e.g. "Danger is my middle name").

• Creating an appealing monogram or initials (e.g. choosing the name Jayden Rex for the option to use the nickname J.R.)

• Providing a change-of-pace alternative if a first name with a specific image doesn't turn out to fit the child.

That's an impressive range of possibilities, and your family may think of even more. Once you look past the illusion, you can focus on making the most of what middle names do best. Instead of just asking "What name goes well with this first and last pair?", try starting with the question "What do I want to accomplish with a middle name?" Whatever your answer, you should end up confident that that your child's whole name is the best it can be.


Read more: A One-Step Recipe for Baby Name Contentment



April 6, 2016 2:36 PM

Totally agree with all of this! I think very often expectant parents are so focused on their lists and saying their name combos over and over that they don't realize how rarely people in the child's life will ever say or even know the middle name.


The only exception that I can think of is when the first name is either an honor name or a more mainstream acceptable name but the parents plan on calling the child exclusively by their middle name. I knew several young women in college who were given the first name Mary as a family tradition, but went exclusively by their middles. The flow was often very choppy, ie Mary Casey Lastname, but that was obviously not the point.

April 6, 2016 3:35 PM

My daughter had a preschool classmate whose parents probably fell into the "middle name to fix the rhythm" trap. The first-last pairing wasn't unusably bad, but the lack of flow was noticeable. (Xer Yer, with Y being particularly hard to say after 'r'.)

April 30, 2016 8:57 AM

To be fair, I think a lot of the "he gets to chose the middle name" includes the unstated assumption that the last name is also his.  I'm firmly in the 'whatever works for you' camp but I agree with the overall premise.


For my first two, we used the middle name to include a family name from my side and to give a more traditional alternative, should they chose, to their offbeat first names.  If my third turns out to be a girl, her first name will be a family name so her middle name will simply be a gift to her -- something fun and fantastical -- knowing that later on it will likely only really be known to her, her family, and her closest friends.


May 4, 2016 6:17 PM

Having no middle name leads to a world of trouble, like a friend of mine. He has to put NMI in the middle initial space in all forms he ever had to fill out. 

May 5, 2016 11:18 PM

@Texchanchan, I don't have a middle name and have never had any official problems because of it. I'm kind of envious of those who have middle names, simply because I like names and it would be nice to have more than one, but not having a middle name has literally never caused me anything that could remotely be called "trouble". So your assertion that not having a middle name "leads to a world of trouble" is, in my experience, totally untrue.

May 9, 2016 7:38 PM

I also do not have a middle name (nor does my sister). It has never caused a problem (or a "world of trouble") in my day to day life. I have never had to fill in "NMI" in any form. Most people don't know of my lack of middle name. It was actually quite fun to grow up without a middle name - always fun to play "guess my middle name." I got my husband pretty good with that one when we first started dating.

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