What’s in a Middle Name?

All genealogists know the value of a person’s last name and how important a first name is in finding out who is who in your family tree.

But what about a middle name? There is great value in the middle name and they can be an important tool in your genealogy search.

So, what’s in a middle name? How do you conduct middle name research?

The History of Middle Names

While the basic idea that is the “middle name” has been a part of society since the Middle Ages, it took until 1835 before the term “middle name” first appeared in the Harvard University periodical Harvadiana. The now fairly common three-name structure is comprised of a given, middle, and last name (surname).

First names usually tend to represent the individual’s uniqueness and acknowledge that they are their own person. The surname is the legacy name of the family. The middle name is sort of a secondary name that helps further tie the individual to important people, events, places, or ideas that echo strongly within their specific family.

However, middle names are not required and are not a part of many heritages and cultures.

Traditions with Middle Names

Middle names can offer clues into your family’s history and even family traditions. Maybe a family passes down the same middle name throughout the generations as a way to tie family member together, honor a loved-one or even distinguish one generation from another.

This article from the DailyMail UK explains how more than 80% of babies are given a middle name that honors a relative.

Example: In my own genealogy research, I have five generations honoring the name of Joseph. The fourth generation has two boys with the first name of Joseph due to one of them passing away at birth. The tradition stopped there but I do find that Joseph was then changed to a middle name rather than a first name which extends two more generations that I can confirm.

The stories that can be uncovered behind middle names can offer a unique story about the lives of the individuals. Middle names might be after special places events – wedding locations, first date, where the couple fell in love, or any other location or event that held special meaning for the couple.

When a Middle Name Isn’t Really a Name

As with all things involving genealogy it is not always as easy as it seems and it must be pointed out that just because a family member has a middle initial does not mean an actual middle name exists.

Example: Former President Harry S. Truman. The S. initial does not stand for anything at all. His parents chose the “S” initial to please both of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young because they could not choose between the two.

Middle Name Research in Genealogy

When doing genealogy research, middle names can make all of the difference when determining who the correct person you are researching is.

Example:  John William Smith 1858-1900 is most likely not the same as John Michael Smith 1857-1899.

We know it’s common to see discrepancies in birth and death years but to have middle names and initials as a discrepancy can pretty much mean that they are two different people. They might be related or live in the same town but most likely they are not the same person.

So with that, when you are pouring over records, looking at lists of names, and researching your ancestors, make sure to look at and confirm middle names or initials.

It’s also good to know that sometimes people go by their middle name and never have a record of their actual birth name except with official government records. Government records typically require the first, middle and surname as legally given at birth.

Example: As with my grandfather and great-grandfather, they were both named Frank Pete. When together, the senior was referred to as Frank, the junior was Pete. After senior passed away, the junior was called both Frank and Pete interchangeably depending on who you were to him. This confusion has shown itself on various documents, images and family stories.

An exception to this may be census records as census recorders may have seemed somewhat more casual than others when creating the records.

Fun Fact: Here’s a list of celebrities from MentalFloss.com who go by their middle name.

What middle names have been discovered in your family tree? Does your family follow any middle name traditions? What is the story behind your middle name?