Danger is my middle name.
April 15, 2011 3:56 AM   Subscribe

Why is it common practice in the US for people to be known by their first initial and middle name eg. J Robert Lennon, E Jean Carroll? Why don't those who prefer their middle name still keep the initial?

In the UK, those who use their middle name are generally known by it - ie. my friend Ronald James is known as 'James' except on official documents, Paul McCartney is never called J. Paul McCartney (although that wouldn;t be very rock), Lee Alexander McQueen known only as Alexander McQueen, and Gordon Brown is known as 'Gordon Brown' rather than J.Gordon Brown. In my British viewpoint the initial seems a little awkward, and like 'jr' or 'John Doe III' very much an American fashion, so I wondered if there was a social signifier or other reason why it caught on.
posted by mippy to Grab Bag (67 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: PS I know about the Amish thing and that Harry Truman added the S on for similar family reasons but it didn#t technically stand for anything. It's very uncommon here for people to use their middle initial ie. Tony Blair is not Tony W. Blair. Is there a certain cachet with middle names in the States?
posted by mippy at 4:11 AM on April 15, 2011

I style myself I style myself F. Middle officially because people are idiots. The lengths people go to in order to confuse themselves about your name is really perplexing and surprising.

Some people refuse to acknowledge that you don't use your first name. Some people have a complete meltdown and can't grasp that you don't use your first name. And I find that those people are helped by the "Initial Name" construction. It helps them get over whatever officious meddling instinct they might have that would lead them to try to teach you what your real name is. I agree that it is an awkward construction. In my experience it is born of frustration and necessity rather than any interest in style.

That said, there are plenty of Americans who successfully just go by their middle names. I think they have just had an easier go of it and haven't had to resort to including their first initial to forestall idiocy (yet).
posted by jph at 4:25 AM on April 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

I would not say it's a common practice, but you see it from time to time. I often assume that the person's first name is a family name and so they want to acknowledge it even if they don't go by it.
posted by Bebo at 4:27 AM on April 15, 2011

In my family, the father passes down one of his names to his son. So I share a first name with my dad, he shares a middle name with his dad (second son, first son got the first name that time), and so on (my son got my middle name).

I go by my middle name, which just happens to start with the same letter as my dad's middle name, so in order to differentiate between us for mail and documents and the like, I'm F. Middlename Lastname and he's Firstname M. Lastname.

This is a big help when it comes time to fill out paperwork, although when I was applying for a mortgage the similarity between our names threw the bank into a tizzy when they saw the gift letter from Firstname M. Lastname to F. Middlename Lastname. We had to both call up the bank at the same time to prove we were different people. Like J. Pat says above, some people just can't grok someone not using their first name.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:37 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Growing up on the US West coast, its not something I ever saw. Then I went to go study in Boston and BAM! everyone had multiple names and first initials. My college dean was A. Michael Spence

Its clearly a class marker. Americans can't be 4th Earl or Marquess but they can be Pierponts or Eliots. It is also where the Jr. or III comes from. If you come from a prominent family, you keep the name because it is recognizable. It is how you get names like J. Fife Symington III

John McCain, the recent presidential candidate, for example comes from a prominent family. His name is actually John Sidney McCain III.
posted by vacapinta at 4:37 AM on April 15, 2011

I wouldn't say that it's common. In fact, it's uncommon enough that I do notice it when I see it. E.G. Actor F. Murray Abraham.

My father, and uncle and a cousin have all gone by their middle names since childhood and none has ever added the initial initial (ha.)

So, it happens, but to me it's certainly not common.
posted by fso at 4:41 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: vacapinta - that was my feeling. The Ronald I mentioned could call himself R. James Riley III, but it's very uncommon for a British person to do that. (I've never seen a women known as a Jr or a II/III/IV which further made me wonder if it were an attempt at the aristocratic.)
posted by mippy at 4:41 AM on April 15, 2011

I don't think that it is terribly common for people to use F. Middle Last and I've lived in the midwest, New England, west coast and mid-Atlantic.

I can only imagine that it stems from official, but not legal, situations like school rosters where one is listed as Susan Smith, but she goes by Jean, so she writes S. Jean Smith to make sure that the person looking at the roster knows who she is.

Or at my work, there is a woman that is W. Middle Last but goes by Middle. However, her work email is WLast@ouroffice.com, so she has her email signature and Outlook name as W. Middle Last.
posted by k8t at 4:41 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry - when I say 'common' I mean more that I have *never* seen this in the UK, but have spotted it enough when reading about Americans that it seemed to be almost a cultural norm.
posted by mippy at 4:42 AM on April 15, 2011

It's not the initial-initial, but the first/earliest time most of us used our middle initial is when we encountered someone else with the same name. When you run into that, especially professionally, you start using John Q. Smith so people realize which John Smith you're talking about, here.

In older times we might say "John Smith of the Glastonbury Smiths", but people move around too much for that now.

The rise of the internet has certainly accelerated this clarification craze: now almost everyone has someone else out there with their same first and last name, and they probably even "run into them" from time to time, by getting the wrong e-mails and so on. So they clarify with middle (or occasionally first) initials.

The first initial-second name combo isn't "common" in use, even for Americans who use their second name day-to-day, but everyone likely knows at least one or two people who do it. I agree it sounds like an attempt to up-class, much like III or Esq.
posted by rokusan at 4:43 AM on April 15, 2011

I'd think it's generally done for two reasons, and both are listed above. George W. Bush gets called that to distinguish him from his father. And sometimes people do it because they're pretentious and think the initial makes the name sound more distinctive. And perhaps it does, because it's expected that the person has the position or the accomplishments to back it up. One doesn't run into janitors called Thomas H. Smith. I still remember the student council president from my last year in high school suddenly calling/signing himself David D. Stewart, and how stupid it sounded, but then Dave was always an attention whore.
posted by orange swan at 4:45 AM on April 15, 2011

I'm American, and I go by my middle name. People I know just call by my middle name, and I introduce myself that way. However I sign official type stuff "F. Middle Last." The only reason I do this is to let people know that name I'm called by is my middle name and avoid confusion. It sometimes causes problems that my name doesn't match official records which list me as First M. Last. In other words, exactly what jph said.

If there's actually a difference between people in the UK and US on this, I'd wonder if it's more common for people in the UK to be called by there middle names in the UK than in the US, and so less of a problem for them. What you said about the use of middle initials being less common in the UK could also account for it.
posted by nangar at 4:45 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That makes sense, but why isn't it happening in the UK? Does it happen in Hispanic countries where names passed down in the family make for very similar names? I can only think of Brazilian footballers called things like 'Ronaldo' and 'Ronaldinho' but I believe that was more for convenience and fitting the name on the shirt than distinction.
posted by mippy at 4:47 AM on April 15, 2011

As robocop is bleeding alluded, it's to differentiate between parents and children. This is really common in Scotland; way back in my own family, there were five generations of Roberts and six of Agnes. It also might explain why all the Scottish folks I know that are known by Farquhar or Campbell are actually J. Farquhar _____ or J. Campbell _____.

(I always felt sorry for Great Uncle Agnes ...)
posted by scruss at 4:48 AM on April 15, 2011

It really isn't common at all, except in written communication. The people I've known who go by their middle names call themselves "Jane Smith" in day-to-day conversation and "Mary Jane Smith" or "M. Jane Smith" on credit cards or other official stuff where getting one's name wrong might result in some practical tangles.

You see this a lot on business cards and in author credits because the initials make the name more distinctive (and, possibly, more upper class) and flow better. It's almost always written names that are stylized like this, not spoken names. We hardly ever address people we know as "M. Night" or "Samuel L."
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:49 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've never seen a women known as a Jr or a II/III/IV

Its not a useage that was ever traditional or considered "proper" for women, whereas for men this has been a usual and traditional useage at least since Victorian times. This would be because (traditionally) a woman's name would change after she was married, wheras a man would have his name his entire life. Also (in "the olden days") it would be possible to have two men "of business" - a father and son with the same name - active in the community at the same time and the suffix would help to distinguish one from the other.
posted by anastasiav at 4:50 AM on April 15, 2011

Americans basically pick the "official" form of their name by what is euphonious and pleasing to them, taking into account family names that repeat, common names, etc. When you see middle initials, you're seeing their "official" name. I use my middle initial ("Eyebrows F. McGee") on official documents, but none of my friends even know what my middle initial is. At a certain point you generally pick a "standard" form of your name and use that on all official documents so they all match.

First Last and First M. Last are the most common, but you also see First Middle Last, F. Middle Last, First M. M. Last, First Maiden Last, etc.

My grandfather was a F. Middle Last, but I did not actually know this until I read his obituary. Because I was not, like, his bank or mortgage holder or the passport agency. He just walked around as Mr. Middle Last in real life. He just didn't like his first name so he never used it, and it was commonly paired with his middling-common last name, so there were 40 other First Lasts the same as him walking around; far fewer Middle Lasts.

My father-in-law is also an F. Middle Last; in his case, he just doesn't think First Last SOUNDS very nice, and I think he's kinda right, it's an awkward combination. His I knew about because his work stationery says "F. Middle Last," largely because he's lived in the same place most of his life and people who knew him when he was twelve remember him as First Last, so having the F. Middle Last on his stationery/office/advertisements/etc. signals those who remember him as First Last.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:50 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Well, I had a half-American boyfriend when I was a teenager, and his brother wanted to be called Name Initial Surname, because he thought it sounded better. That's what made me wonder about there being a cultural element.

I don't have a middle name, but I know several people with many. I also deal with corporate paperwork through my job, and I've not seen any UK folk use the middle initial in my recollection. (One person at work does style himself GMRC Surname, but it's completely ironic.) It's also uncommon for women to use their maiden name as a sort of extra name (ie. Courtney Cox Arquette) here - we're more hyphenating kind of people.
posted by mippy at 4:51 AM on April 15, 2011

Actor F. Murray Abraham

Actors in particular do it because the Actor's Guild only registers a name once, and if you weren't first out of the gate with your name, you are out of luck. Julia Roberts's first name is actually Julie, but there was already a Julie Roberts so she altered her name. Michael J. Fox's middle name is Andrew, but when there was already a Michael Fox registered and he thought calling himself Michael A. Fox was asking for it. He didn't want to call himself Andrew Fox either. So he made up a middle initial for himself.
posted by orange swan at 4:51 AM on April 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: ^ this is also the case for Equity in the UK. David Tennant chose his in honour of the Pet Shop Boys.
posted by mippy at 4:52 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Harry Truman added the S on for similar family reasons

No, Truman's middle name was S from birth.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 4:53 AM on April 15, 2011

My ex-wife is half-Turkish, half-Scottish and went by her middle name.

I don't know that the practice to which the OP refers is exclusively American.
posted by dfriedman at 4:54 AM on April 15, 2011

Oh, and to actually answer the question. My son (who is four) already gets called J. Name Lastname on documents. His first name is shared by him, his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfathers on both sides. His middle name we actually call him by. He also has another middle name that is an old family name. Then his last name.

Insurance, school, etc, insist that we register him as Joseph, but he gets confused if you try to call him that (did I mention he's four?). So (for example) his insurance card says Joseph Name Lastname, but when I sign him in at the doctor's office I'll sign him in as J Name Lastname.
posted by anastasiav at 4:54 AM on April 15, 2011

As a kind of reverse example from the UK, My dad uses the diminutive form of one of his two middle names. So his name is A B C Surname, but he's been know as D Surname since childhood.

He spent a couple of weeks in hospital last month, and you wouldn't believe the trouble we had trying to explain to twenty different people exactly why they needed to call him D. A couple of them acted like he was going under a false name. Perhaps if we'd adopted an American-style convention, they'd have been able to parse it properly.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:07 AM on April 15, 2011

As I understand it, a large part of the reason is because of names passing down from father to son.

In extremis: each of George Foreman's five sons is called George.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:20 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree that it is more common in written names. I know lawyers and judges who go by F. Middle Last, because their full name is what's on their law license and paperwork. But socially they go by Middle. I know a James who only uses the initial and is socially called by his middle name. Why? Because he hates it when people call him Jimmy.

I've also noticed that going strictly by middle names is a little more common in the southern states than the northern states (based on my unscientific personal experience). My dad, grandma and stepdad all go exclusively by their middle names.
posted by motsque at 5:39 AM on April 15, 2011

I'm F. Middle Last on official correspondence, department phone lists, signs, etc. People who know me know me as Middle Last, but it its confusing for people who have seen an auto-generated form expecting First Last. As a result, if you were to know me solely in an arms-length professional sense you might call me Dr. F. Middle Last, even though I never set out to have people refer to me that way.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:48 AM on April 15, 2011

Following on JPH's "people are idiots" comment. It's governments and form-creators that are idiots. I also style myself in the form of "F. Middle". It is amazing how many forms demand a first name, a middle initial, and a last name, and won't accept anything else.

I recently had a minor government official demand "What is your real name?"
posted by megatherium at 5:50 AM on April 15, 2011

I believe business practice is that the most formal mode of written address uses [first name] [middle initial] [last name]. When people don't care to use their first name, the initial letter of the first name can be made available to satisfy the standards of formal written address in the professional setting.
posted by Ys at 5:58 AM on April 15, 2011

It sounds more like a southern thing and is unheard of up here in the midwest.
posted by JJ86 at 5:59 AM on April 15, 2011

It sounds more like a southern thing and is unheard of up here in the midwest.

See, this is where St. Louis shows that it's both Midwestern and Southern, I guess, 'cause I see it fairly often here. Knew a few people in high school who did it; a few in college; a lot in the working world since then. Most often I see it with people who just don't like their first name, but who feel like keeping the first initial looks more professional and/or mysterious. I think some guys use it because it makes them feel more adult.
posted by limeonaire at 6:09 AM on April 15, 2011

JJ, I grew up in Chicago and saw it there. Not as often as in the south (where I went to law school), no, but it's not unheard of in the midwest.

Chances are in the midwest you just call him "Bob Smith" and don't know that professionally he's J. Robert Smith.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:13 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: I don't have a middle name and I'm led to believe this would mean I would have to add 'NMN' to application forms, because US systems are set up with the assumption that anyone opening a bank account etc. will havce one.
posted by mippy at 6:13 AM on April 15, 2011

Most computer forms in the U.S. allow you to have no middle name. Good ones let you be "F. Middle Last" or "First M. M. Last" (my husband has two middle names, we have a lot of experience with this). If you don't want a middle name you just skip that field, most of the time.

Also sometimes -- sometimes! -- politely pointing out the computer's stupidity will result in a fix. When we went to get my son baptized, we discovered my (big) diocese's system had no way to record married couples with different last names ... it insisted that if we were married, there was only one last name field available and it autofilled the wife's last name based on the husband. We pointed this out to the priest, who did a little research and gave us the contact info of the IT guy for the diocese. We sent a nice e-mail, admitting it was not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things but that the system wasn't in fact capable of properly recording both our names AND our marital status. Three months later our mail from the diocese started coming properly addressed and the IT guy sent us an e-mail thanking us for alerting him to the system's problem.

(It probably mattered more to them than to us, since the only time you need diocesan records is for diocesan business and it's not like they won't let you get married because your mother's name is improperly recorded on your baptismal certificate or something. I'd have cared a lot more if it were, say, health insurance.)

PS -- I actually know a toddler whose middle name is "Danger." His parents came to a compromise where mom picked his first name and dad picked his middle. I ... can't roll my eyes enough, yet simultaneously feel this kid will have the best bar pickup line ever when he's 21.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:22 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this is really rarer in England than in the US. Flip through an academic journal and I'm sure you'll find plenty of instances. Off the top of my head the example that comes to mind is G. Wilson Knight and his brother W.F. Jackson Knight, who were both British.
posted by phoenixy at 6:23 AM on April 15, 2011

If you applied for a bank account in the US and wrote "NMN" in the middle name field on the application form, I think there's at least a 50% chance that you would receive a debit card with the name "Mippy N.M.N. Lastname" printed on it. That's the primary reason that people make up initials for themselves. Because official computers are stupid.
posted by decathecting at 6:28 AM on April 15, 2011


I used to date a guy who's name was John [Extremely uncommon German-surname-sounding middle name] [Extremely common last name]. He always said that if/when he starts writing, he'll do it as J. [middle name] [last name].

He could be one of thousands as John [last name], so avoid that. Or he could be just [middle name] [last name], which would sound way too weird and make people focus on why he has such a wacky "first" name. Or he could be J. [middle name] [last name], which sounds just right. (And a little Ivy League snotty, which, yeah, there's a reason we no longer date. heh.)

There are also a lot of cases where the first and last names are handed down father to son, and only the middle names differ. So, to have a little bit of individuality, the son goes by his middle name. But wanting to keep up the family ties, he keeps it official with his dad's first initial.
posted by phunniemee at 6:34 AM on April 15, 2011

I go by Middle Last. Always have; my parents immediately called me by middle name. They just thought that nothing sounded good with Suzanne as a first name and always intended to call me Suzanne.

The thing is, every form I ever fill out asks for first name. (Most don't acknowledge Middle.) So officially I have to write my first name all the time. My signature has become F. Middle Last because it's weird to fill out a form with a name you don't sign at all. On my business cards, I put F. Middle Last. If you get my name from a database, you will probably think I go by First. I put the F. there just to help out if someone is looking for First. I've never met anyone with my name, so it wasn't just to separate myself from the others.

It's great to know who is calling that doesn't know me because they always ask for First.

There was no way in hell that I was going to change my last name when I got married and further complicate things. There are a bazillion places that can't deal with that. (Car insurance for one gave me a fake hyphen because there is no way to associate accounts with different last names?!?)
posted by Kronur at 6:34 AM on April 15, 2011

I go by my middle name and use my first initial due to the email naming convention used by the firm I worked for in mid-90's. Their email address absolutely, positively required First name, Middle Initial, last name. And because I went by my middle name, the admin made my email address first initial, middle name, last name. It stuck, and I professionally became known as First Initial, Middle Name, Last Name. All due to 90's email naming rules!
posted by rtodd at 6:42 AM on April 15, 2011

It is more common than most people realize because a) we have a small sample that we're familiar with and b) we often don't realize that a person's name is different than how we address them. A poster further up didn't know his grandfather's name was different until he read the obituary is an example of this. However, in my current and previous jobs, I've had access to large databases of names. The use of initials in patterns outlined by Eyebrows above is so common that is is built into some databases. For example, in the one that I work most closely with, there are name fields which allow you to simply type "fm" to get First Name Middle Name Last Name layout for a formal address label.

In my own immediate family, my grandfather was First M. Last II and his eldest son was F. M. Last III. That uncle goes by a nickname and passed his first name to his son as a middle name.

My father's name is two capital letters. There's no punctuation or spacing. His parents took his mother's first and middle initials, reversed them and gave them to him as his complete first name. This caused me difficulties when I got married and again when I changed my name because I had to prove that two capital letters were his complete name. He has no middle name.

My younger child is joining our family by adoption (can we just finalize already?). Kiddo is strongly attached to the first name given at birth to such a degree that kiddo didn't even realize there were two last names originally given. Kiddo is 4 and we're not taking the name away. However, we're going to change the two last names and append a couple of other names to try and help break the cycle of ID theft that's been going on since kiddo was about 1. We're also petitioning to get the SSN changed as well. So, Kiddo's legal name will ultimately be Name 1 Name 2 Name 3 Last name but kiddo will be known as Name 3 Last name. Kiddo's very excited about this and likes saying all four names together.

Finally, my cousin had First name 7 middle names and last name. My friend Carole has three names and two last names. She goes by the second name and second last name.
posted by onhazier at 6:59 AM on April 15, 2011

I've encountered two reasons for this. First, unsurprisingly, is they hated their first name and refused to called by it. Second, and there is some overlap with the first group, is they had the same first name as their father (this seems to be a guy thing) and it was less confusing at home. Interestingly, all the people I know in this situation omit their first initial on everything but their handwritten signature, none of them use the J. Uppiington Smythe form anywhere else.
posted by tommasz at 7:01 AM on April 15, 2011

Anecdata--many years ago, I attended the same church as J.Tom Morgan, and can confirm that he always went by "J.Tom," emphasis on the J. I can also confirm that the spacing I've used to write his name is correct.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:05 AM on April 15, 2011

My best friend in high school came from a family with the tradition of naming the eldest male children "John (middle name) Lastname. He, his father, and his grandfather were all "John Lastname." His grandfather went by "John (initial), his father went by "John Middlename." My friend eventually started signing documents with "J. Middlename Lastname." But everybody still calls him by his middle name.
posted by Shohn at 7:26 AM on April 15, 2011

My experience is that it is about half pretense and half useful distinction. I will often see people running for office using these types of constructions in order to leverage some kind of familiarity. Throwing a "Murphy" in there gets votes. What's distinctive about John Stevenson? But make it J. Adlai Stevenson and you win.
posted by gjc at 7:34 AM on April 15, 2011

My father is named Dale Evans
Dale Evans was also named Dale Evans.
When I was young, a new neighbor teased me about my father being " Ha, ha, married to Roy Rogers."
Dad puts F. Dale Evans on his paperwork to help avoid this sort of nonsense.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:41 AM on April 15, 2011

mippy: (I've never seen a women known as a Jr or a II/III/IV which further made me wonder if it were an attempt at the aristocratic.)

I have always believed it is more true-sexist than faux-aristocratic.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:02 AM on April 15, 2011

PS -- I actually know a toddler whose middle name is "Danger." His parents came to a compromise where mom picked his first name and dad picked his middle. I ... can't roll my eyes enough, yet simultaneously feel this kid will have the best bar pickup line ever when he's 21.

I wonder if we know the same kid? I also know a toddler boy whose middle name is Danger.
posted by anastasiav at 8:18 AM on April 15, 2011

mippy: "(I've never seen a women known as a Jr or a II/III/IV which further made me wonder if it were an attempt at the aristocratic.)"

The only time I've seen a Jr. on a female was Joan Crawford Jr. which was later changed to Christina Crawford, author of Mommie Dearest.
posted by deborah at 8:31 AM on April 15, 2011

I would say in my family, it is used quite commonly for paperwork and legal signatures mostly to avoid problems. I'd love it if I never had to use my first initial and could just sign my name starting with my middle name, but in my experience, it's really not work the hassle, especially with medical paperwork and insurance. We live in the Midwest if it makes any difference.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:33 AM on April 15, 2011

I have all sorts of interesting name issues, but for a while I was going by E. Jeremy because my boss had a thing for using one's real name (rather than Dragonkiller or whatnot - this was the game industry) and it took her years to understand that no, really, Jeremy is what everyone actually calls me.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2011

My dad is J. Thomas West to differentiate him from his dad who was Joe West and his dad who was, I think, also Joe West. Everyone calls him Tom but there's a long stretch of Joseph Thomases (guess what my name would have been if I was a dude?) so keeping both names was something my dad wanted to do and it means if there's a legal document that has his full name on it, it will match which might not be true if he was just Tom.

If you see me using my middle initial it's to differentiate me from the other Jessamyn West the writer [whose real name was actually Mary Jessamyn West McPherson but published under Jessamyn West] in Amazon or someplace.
posted by jessamyn at 8:58 AM on April 15, 2011

To answer the specific question embedded in the larger one, in the case of J Robert Lennon, he goes by John in conversation, but that would be awfully confusing in print. Similarly, the archaeologist Adam T Smith is pretty careful about using his full name in publications, but not because of the possibility of being confused with his father.
posted by dizziest at 9:02 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Re: J Robert Lennon - this is a good example as the British artist Steve McQueen doesn't call himself Steve R McQueen to avoid the same confusion. Would he in the US? If so, why?
posted by mippy at 9:05 AM on April 15, 2011

Where I work, at least, the computer system "needs" everyone to have a middle initial so it can properly generate a standard email address, system usernames, etc. People without a middle name get the initial "X". I think this is funny, because you can never tell if someone's middle name actually starts with X or if they just don't have one. And I love how it can make an otherwise-boring name sound so exotic...
posted by Jemstar at 9:06 AM on April 15, 2011

I've never seen a women known as a Jr or a II/III/IV

I'm actually sitting next to one right now! The only one I've ever encountered. She, her mother, and her grandmother all share the same first and middle names, and she and her mother share a last name on top of this. She says she's officially-on-paper Firstname Lastname Jr.

From what I understand, the family is not aristocratic or anything - they're about as blue-collar as one can get. The female "junior" thing just appears to be a family tradition.
posted by chez shoes at 9:20 AM on April 15, 2011

This is a snarky subplot in John Grisham's "The Rainmaker," where it's attributed specifically to people wanting to seem more professional, serious, upper-crust. The narrator, a working class kid, says that he starts law school with a bunch of "Bob Smith"s and "Mary Jones"s, but by the time they graduate, they have all morphed into "R. Frederick Smith" and "M. Elizabeth Jones-Creswell." Not ornamenting his name with initial initials and other frippery is a point of pride for the narrator.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:35 AM on April 15, 2011

Anecdotal point: like your original examples, my (American) mother goes by her middle and last names, and never uses the first unless it's on official documentation.

I go by my first name, middle initial, last name, because my firstname+lastname is incredibly common.
posted by lhall at 9:36 AM on April 15, 2011

Data point: J. Robert Lennon is an acquaintance of mine; he goes by John personally but uses Robert professionally, since there's already a kind of well known John Lennon.
posted by modernserf at 10:13 AM on April 15, 2011

My Aunt & Uncle named their son & daughter after themselves.

My Uncle is F. Middle Last, and my cousin is First M. Last Jr.
My Aunt and cousin go by different variations of the same name.

When girl cousin got married, she did something similar with her first two kids. They both were named after their parents but go by their middle names.
posted by luckynerd at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2011

I agree that this is something you see in writing (for the reasons listed above) but it's not common for people to actually include an initial in their everyday "what do you go by?" name. I suppose it happens, but I've never known anyone that I can think of who wanted to be called a form of "F. Murray". If I met someone whose name was styled as "F Murray" I would assume they went by Murray.

It is somewhat common, and maybe more so in the south, to go just by initials ("K.C." pronounced like Casey, for example), or to go by shortened forms of both first and middle names ("Joe Bob" for Joseph Robert).
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:47 AM on April 15, 2011

Data point: I know of several women who work in professions where women are (or were) not highly regarded who use their first and middle initial to hide the fact that they have a female name. A good example is an author (who actually happened to be my middle school history teacher, and who I would dearly love to get in contact with if she's still around) S. C. Sykes. She couldn't get any books published under her real name, which I don't remember, but saw a bit of success with her initials.
posted by SpecialK at 10:50 AM on April 15, 2011

George Ivan Morrison.

My grandfather was William Arthur such and such but he went by Archie in order to distinguish himself from his older brother, Guillaume, who went by "Bill". Also, screw George Foreman.
posted by jsavimbi at 12:08 PM on April 15, 2011

I've never seen a women known as a Jr or a II/III/IV

Technically, I was a female junior. My mother and I were both "Jane Anne Smith" for 30 years* and I added the junior for 10 or so years there (ages 15-25) to anything official but it got tiresome explaining it to people. I still get junk mail for Jane A. Smith Jr. Mom has since remarried but we still have the same first & middle names. My mom's mom was also "Jane" and she was named after her father "John".

I highly do NOT recommend the whole naming your kid after yourself thing. I get mail from AARP & for reverse mortgages because somewhere along the line, our identities got co-mingled.

As for the first initial/middle name thing - I work with a whole raft of men who go by their middle names. Gaius, Harry, Ben, George, William, Doug, Frank & Thornton are (respectively) Bill, Bob, Doug, Frank, Mac, Doug, Bill, Page. All of them sign their names First Initial Middle Name. In the case of Gaius and Thornton, you really can't blame them - the others are all named after family members and went their middle names to avoid confusion.

*The same name was my dad's idea and done while my mom was recovering from labor. As much as I bitch about having the same name & the confusion it has caused, it has had the effect of: 1) several annoying family members have no idea what my real name is since I was given a totally unrelated nickname early on because of the dueling name business. 2) I was saved from being a Jennifer (in the 60s!), an Augusta or an Octavia.
posted by jaimystery at 12:35 PM on April 15, 2011

In theory, Americans have never had a rigid birthright class system as existed in Europe, and the population has always been so mobile that names have almost no ties to place. But since many immigrants still bring over remnants of their old systems, we have things like this. Names can have a special magic, so we get things like people changing their family names to something more 'noble' when they immigrate, or giving their children names that would seem to facilitate assimilation or upward mobility. On the other hand, we have situations where the child was given just any old name, but as they grew up and became railroad tycoons or whatever, they needed a more distinguished moniker. And again, there are so many routes to fame where reinventing oneself through a change of name can be a boon; Cary Grant is suaver than Archie Leech, and many preteen boys would not necessarily have read the works of S.E. Hinton if they knew she was a girl.

In practice, there are so many naming conventions from the various regions and cultural groups, so much overlap between them, and so much repetition, that there can be a lot of mixups when it comes to bureaucracy, so people pick some way to differentiate themselves from every other John Smith.

So it's a mix of social mobility and practical 'He's John Smith, I'm John Q. Smith, and that other guy is J. Michael Smith, so when you have a message for Smith, which one do you mean' patterns. At first glance, I would probably pigeonhole anyone with two first initials and a lastname as an author or poet (see J.K. Rowling, e.e. cummings) and an F. Middle Lastname as an academic, pundit, or politician. If I had aspirations for my child, I might name them accordingly.

Since many others have given their own family conventions...
The part of the family that moved to Spain refers to every other member by both their first and middle names (if they have one) at all times, so one becomes Steven Robert X to them while he's just Steve X to the rest of the family.
On my father's side, there is the tradition of the son's middle name being the father's first name. So John Thomas X would beget Michael John X, who would beget Peter Michael X, who would beget Robert Peter X, etc.
On my mother's side, daughters are given their mother's maiden name, so Jane Thomas would marry a man named Johnson and become Jane Johnson; her daughters would all have the middle name Thomas, and her granddaughters would all have the middle name Johnson.
posted by bartleby at 1:57 PM on April 15, 2011

My mother was known in the family as Firstname Middlename Lastname the 2nd until she was about 30 years old: she was named, first middle and last names, after a paternal aunt. Even worse: she was one of ten kids, and ALL TEN were named after older family menbers..... four of the six sisters, including my Mom, plus two of their brothers were known as 2nd's; the other two sisters and two brothers, heaven help them, were 3rd's.....

(Even though there were plenty of times I disliked my name, I've always been EXTREMELY glad Mom named us brand-new, nobody-else-in-the-family-got-'em names.)
posted by easily confused at 6:03 PM on April 15, 2011

I use my first initial, then middle name, last name. I started doing this in high school. My reasons were that I absolutely hated my first name (and still do - it's very girly and reminiscent of the early 1970s) and that my middle and last are both short, four-letter names, so my name looked a bit...naked? without the first initial. Together, though, they all have a nice sound. I like the added bit of dignity and stateliness that my first initial adds to what otherwise would be a fairly bland, forgettable name.

While informally, I just go by my middle name, I'm very insistent on using the first initial professionally. I like how it makes my name less feminine (especially spoken, since my middle name is one of those that sounds like it could be either masculine or feminine) and, I think (or hope) that it stands out in conference programs or on publications. Unfortunately, people often either leave the first initial off, or reverse the order, so it's Middle Name First Initial Last Name. This drives me insane.

I've met a few other people who do this, but most of them are men. I've only met one other woman who used her first initial (for many of the same reasons I do).
posted by heurtebise at 9:04 PM on April 15, 2011

For some reason, many years ago as a teenager I decided to include my middle initial in my signature. Now in my professional life, wherein I sign a lot of official documents, I have to use my middle initial so the printed name matches the signature. So sometimes it's just dumb luck.
posted by sarahkeebs at 11:28 AM on April 16, 2011

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