a question about names
June 22, 2020 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I don't have a middle name. For years, I have toyed with legally adding my mother's maiden name to my name, but have never gone through with it due to complications. Can you help me think this through and identity the pros and cons?

I don't have a middle name, which is unusual for my age cohort, the demographics of where I grew up, and the demographics of where I live now. For years, I have toyed with the idea of adding my mother's maiden name legally to my name, and in fact almost requested they use it when they called my name at my college graduation, but backed off at the last minute.

The reason for this is as follows: I was born in DC and live in New York. My family is South Asian, and while my first name is two syllables and spelled phonetically, people always mispronounce it (they see it written down, register it as "foreign", and overthink it). My last name is three syllables but also spelled phonetically. Literally WYSIWYG. Still always butchered.

My mother's maiden name is four syllables, also spelled phonetically, but has a mess of consonants towards the end that complicate matters a bit - while my first and last names are very straightforward as long as you don't overthink it, my mother's maiden name takes some more thought up front.

My mother passed when I was very young, and I have often, for years, wanted to add her maiden name to mine as a tribute to her. However, thinking pragmatically, knowing that my relatively simple existing name confuses most people, I fear that I would just be adding more complications to my life. I already get frustrated spelling my current name over the phone.

Am I overthinking this? I don't know what it's like to live with a middle name. Would I have to change my driver's license and passport and social security card and other documents? Would I have to start spelling that, too, on the phone? How often do people deploy their middle names, honestly? I'm a writer, do I need to add it to my bylines?

I think I am overthinking this but am not sure. Middle name-havers, can you tell me the pros and cons of having a middle name (especially if it is long, complicated, or "foreign" by American standards)?

posted by nayantara to Grab Bag (28 answers total)
I cannot speak to having a "foreign" middle name, but for other things:

Pretty much anything official will just ask for a middle initial so don't worry about that.

Credit cards and such just use whatever is printed on the front of the card which in my case is my first and last name only. I don't remember if they even bothered asking for my middle name.

Aside from that, it's pretty hit and miss as to if you need it for anything. I can't recall offhand the last time I needed my full middle name for anything.
posted by Fukiyama at 3:15 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to "long, complicated, or foreign" but in my experience, people's usage of middle names or initials are completely optional. Forms to fill out occasionally ask for a middle initial which is useful for differentiating between people who have identical first/last names. I don't use my middle name for anything and only sometimes use my middle initial just because I like it.

My father went by his middle name his whole life (he shared his first name with his father). He never even did the thing with using a first initial in his name, like J. Jonah Jameson. Many people who knew didn't even realize that the name he went by was actually his middle name. His first name was only ever used in legal documents. It also helped us weed out telemarketers whenever anyone called the house asking for him by his first name.

So what I'm saying is, you are absolutely free to make the choice in how you use your middle name.

As far as changing your name (and any potential legal complications), I'll let others advise as I've never done so.
posted by acidnova at 3:30 PM on June 22, 2020

Best answer: yeah I've never had to say my middle name out loud. It doesn't matter. (My middle name is currently my extremely ethnic maiden name.) You'll never have to say or spell it over the phone.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:30 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mine is long and complicated (and in fact is a last name), and this has sometimes led to people entering it as my last name when working off my license, or mis-filing things under my middle name. In general, it's pretty easy to troubleshoot this, and it probably only happens once every few years (except when I was in grad school, and easily half of my library books ended up on hold under my middle name). That said, this is probably exacerbated by the fact that my last name is quite short, so may not happen to you.

I think this is a lovely idea, and I doubt that it will become a huge hassle. There's no reason to add it to your byline or author bios, or ever spell it over the phone if you don't want to.
posted by dizziest at 3:31 PM on June 22, 2020

Another vote for 'never say my middle name aloud, rarely use it at all'. I guess some people make a conscious choice to use theirs publicly eg. as part of their professional name, but for most of us it's just one of those things that comes up in your passport and occasional trivia exchanges. It's your middle name, deploy it as much or as little as you like!
posted by penguin pie at 3:40 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

My wife’s middle name is her mother’s maiden name. My grandfather had the same thing. I love it; it’s a beautiful tribute.

That said, middle names are pretty useless in the US. The best use of mine is that it gives me a middle initial, so I can (and do - I’m kind of a douche!) go by my initials like JFK. The only other time mine has come up in conversation is when I was placing an order with LL Bean for a monogrammed backpack.

If your first name/last name combination is common enough that you’ll sometimes be mistaken for someone else with the same name, a middle initial could be helpful to distinguish you. Other than that, it’s ornamental.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:44 PM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

Some other Asians I've met have their name written in whichever language is translatable such as my friend Diana who uses this name to not have to worry about the phonetics. In the culture I think it can be replaced and not need to be legally changed.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 4:01 PM on June 22, 2020

Pretty much anything official will just ask for a middle initial so don't worry about that.

I recently got a REAL ID-compliant license and they told me I had to use my full legal name even though I've always had just the middle initial on my driver's license and omit even that whenever I have the opportunity.
posted by teremala at 4:12 PM on June 22, 2020

Best answer: I changed my middle name for similar reasons to your own. It has few effects on my life and is most noticeable when setting up financial vehicles or dealing with international bureaucracy. Officially changing documents to reflect my name was tedious but relatively painless. It does have too many characters for the social security database, which may cause future problems, and although my name definitely gets mangled the trouble has been worth it, so far.

I like my name. I like that it is mine by choice, that it must be recognized by others even in small bureaucratic ways, and I like that it honors all sides of my family. Genealogy is significant to my extended family and I refuse to be part of a naming system that erases half the family every generation.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 4:24 PM on June 22, 2020

My middle name is a family name which is very unusual in the U.S. and no one in the U.S. knows how to pronounce it or spell it, ever. It is mine, I like it, it honors family, and mostly we just use the middle initial here anyway, and I am keeping it! Yes, sometimes I have to spell it out, and it confuses people, but it does not come up that often.

Anyway, my last name is 3 syllables but is pronounced exactly as written, is of English origin, but is not that common in the U.S. so gets mispronounced and misspelled all the time! Mr. gudrun's last name is one syllable, is a common noun in English, and gets messed up regularly. My point is, to my mind, it is just not worth trying to make it "easy" on people. Just go with what you want and honor your mother, if that is what you want to do.
posted by gudrun at 4:43 PM on June 22, 2020

I have a middle name that is on my government ID and official stationery but is otherwise unused. My first and last names are hard to pronounce for people here and the middle name would just be more of the same. I'd be for getting one as tribute for your mother as long as it isn't too much work to do - like if you had to then get new driver's licences and passports immediately and not whenever it was time to renew.

Also if your mother's maiden name is common within your community it could cause some additional hassle. Here in Ontario the search for court judgments will match you with a judgment debtor if you have the same last name and one of your given names matches one of the debtor's given names. So adding a common middle name makes it more likely for your name to turn up as a false match to someone else.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:45 PM on June 22, 2020

Best answer: Another vote for middle names are voluntary / ornamental in the US.
Other than something like a passport or a full-legal-name official signature, they don't come up unless you put it down on the credit card application or letterhead that way. (Middle name havers sometimes end up with an assortment of identities that use full name, firstname lastname, first middle initial last, etc.)

South Asian note: do the initial letters of your first and proposed middle name make a pleasing combination? I ask because...
Mr. Patel was proud to name his son after a famous poet.
But he wasn't thinking that the boy was going to spend his life spelling out Rabindranath Tagore Patel all the time.
The kid found it was much easier to put R.T. Patel on his name tags and later business cards. If anybody asked, a beleaguered sigh and 'I got tired of spelling it, even though it's phonetic' is an acceptable people should try harder, but I get that life is life answer.
Initialized names / nicknames seem to be not uncommon for long / difficult names in the South Asian community (and avoids an assimilationist 'just call me Rob, like Robert' erasure).
Being T.K. Lastname might skip over some 'foreign' and even sexist? readings, and you can put first name T, middle initial K, lastname on most forms.

Feminist note: since I've had similar conversations before - but a maiden name is just some other MAN's name! It's patriarchy all the way down!! - might I suggest taking something from the men in my family. We've got several generations going where the sons middle name is the father's first name. There's no reason one couldn't do this with daughters. Imagining some formal ceremony in a movie on a big soundstage, where the soundtrack swells and the Strong Female Protagonist declares:
I am Diane Mary, daughter of Mary June, daughter of June Ruth, daughter of Ruth Janina, daughter of Janina Celeste, daughter of Celeste Theresa, daughter of...
posted by bartleby at 4:46 PM on June 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have a hyphenated non-English middle name. My first and last name are common so I deploy it on occasions where I would like to be distinct. I'm a visible minority so sometimes I have included it to emphasize that my English first name is indeed my "real" name, although I doubt anyone has ever actually picked up on that nuance. Airline reservation systems don't like the hyphen, and every once in a blue moon, someone looking at my drivers license mistakes it for two last names, but it's mostly a non-issue. As others have pointed out, there are very few situations where you are required to use your full legal name.

I would also point out though, lots of people (especially writers and academics) use totally different names legally, socially, and/or professionally. You could just as easily adopt a middle name without going through the hassle of legally changing it. Your byline would be the perfect place to start using it. People change how they are attributed all the time, no one will blink an eye and you don't have to get a new passport to honor your mother.
posted by yeahlikethat at 4:50 PM on June 22, 2020

I "changed" my middle name sometime in college, not officially because I'd read (in those pre-paranoid patriot act days) that as long as there was no intent to commit fraud, it wasn't necessary. So my driver's license still has my birth one but LOL, my passport has my adopted one. No one seems to have noticed.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:07 PM on June 22, 2020

I think that is a nice thing to do and have not had problems since changing my middle name to two names when I got married. Three of my names can be spelled multiple ways and the fourth is easy to mishear, but I can't remember the last time I had to spell either middle name. To be fair, they are all European names and the only hard part is having two middle names that are not hyphenated.
posted by soelo at 5:20 PM on June 22, 2020

My father had no middle name. He would often write his initials as JNMIW. The NMI standing for No Middle Initial. His father made up a middle name because he thought it sounded more official. Don't overthink it. Do what feels best for you.
posted by AugustWest at 5:25 PM on June 22, 2020

I've never cared for my middle name, and it does not appear on any documents where it is not required by law. So, it's on my birth certificate, and the middle initial is on my Social Security card, and that's it. It's not on my driver's licence or credit cards, it's never been on any employment record, and I've never used it on any legal document to which I've been a party. So unless you really want to, you don't *have* to add your new chosen middle name to anything you don't want to. You don't even have to go the court route if you don't want to; you can just start throwing it into your signature or wherever.

I have a professional singer friend who first started performing under her maiden name, but took her husband's name when she got married. When she performs, she's now billed as Firstname Maidenname Husbandsname.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:11 PM on June 22, 2020

The NMI standing for No Middle Initial.

I had a friend in the same situation; when asked her middle name, she'd say "Nimmy."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:13 PM on June 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, just one more comment and I'll shut up. My father's mother was horrified when my sister and I were given middle names at birth. "But when they get married, their maiden names will become their middle names!"
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:14 PM on June 22, 2020

My full first, middle, and last names are on my marriage license, social security card (original and amended), REAL state ID, passport, and airline tickets. I don't actually use my middle name for anything other than filling out forms. There was a point where I was trying to use all three names but it just got kind of tiresome, especially since my first and last names are kind of long.
posted by sm1tten at 6:24 PM on June 22, 2020

I suppose I can weigh in on this topic. Do as you want, just you'd add a bit of complication to your life (possibly). I have three middle names. My birth certificate has I suppose the official name. My US green card has the middle names in the wrong order. My US Social Security card only uses one initial from my middle names. My Canadian SIN card I accidently melted down, so I don't recall what was on there. My driver's license has something different as well. It can be a hassle when stuff doesn't match up, but it's rare.

My middle names are of a Canadian great-uncle killed in WWI, a famous relative who was a Union general in the US civil war, and my grandmother's maiden name, a king of Scotland. I expect my parents wanted to keep my grandparents happy, so they saddled me with all those middle names. With a fairly unique first and last name, it would be difficult for anyone trying an identity theft thing. Only hard part is remembering which set of names I used on whatever documentation. Oh, and people mispronounce my first and last names all the time. My first name is the same as a famous late politician.
posted by baegucb at 6:38 PM on June 22, 2020

Best answer: My mother passed when I was very young, and I have often, for years, wanted to add her maiden name to mine as a tribute to her.

This is a sensitive and meaningful tribute. You want to say to the world, I am of her. This internet stranger thinks it's a lovely idea and a gift to yourself that you will treasure for life.

However, thinking pragmatically, knowing that my relatively simple existing name confuses most people, I fear that I would just be adding more complications to my life. I already get frustrated spelling my current name over the phone.

Let go of the frustration and you can have your name. Seriously, you don't have to feel frustration at spelling your own name, it's a choice. Venturing a guess, I wonder if your frustration comes from not being in a place that doesn't find your name unfamiliar, rather than the actual act of spelling it out. I say this because I have to spell my name out every time I have to give it, and I never get frustrated by that; it's rote behaviour. But I am in my place and my name is, apart from the minor twists, common, but in need of spelling.

Take the name. And spell it out loud and proud every day. And, when you think about it, doesn't the expectation that you shouldn't have to spell your name come from a sense of entitlement that no-one is actually owed?
posted by Thella at 12:43 AM on June 23, 2020

I had a hyphenated last name and no middle name. When I got married and took my husband’s last name, I attempted a slick move and made up a middle name and put that on my social security card application. The SSA guy said, “oh you gave yourself a middle name!” And that was that, my social security card says Tatiana Jade Wishbone. However when I took that to the DMV the DMV lady said “this isn’t your middle name on your previous license” and therefore I am simply Tatiana Wishbone on my drivers license. Now I don’t actually know what my name is, legally. In conclusion, I believe in order to officially change it on my driver’s license I would have had to go before a judge and do a lot more paperwork that I didn’t feel like doing. Your municipality may vary.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:31 AM on June 23, 2020

Best answer: Do the tribute to your mom. Don't worry about whether or not people will fuck it up; they will fuck it up regardless. I know a guy named Michael Jones and people fuck it up by saying, "Michelle? Jonas?" because 50% of the population is of below-average intelligence.
posted by notsnot at 5:31 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the input guys, this is really helpful.

I suppose I have a part 2 question now: if I wanted to do this legally (like, court-legally), what are the steps required? I just did a quick Google and the sheer amount of info that popped up made my COVID-lockdown-addled-brain hurt. Can someone explain to me like I am 5?
posted by nayantara at 7:14 AM on June 23, 2020

Best answer: The official instructions are wordy, but not actually that bad:

1. Obtain:
- a "proof of birth," such as a certified birth certificate
- $65-$210 (depends on your county; NYC is the $65) [alternatively: seek a fee waiver]
- some extra money for publishing the change after it's approved [no official waiver available]
- possibly: any additional documentation about lawsuits, judgments, child support orders, etc. you may be involved in, per instructions in the "petition" form

2. Fill in:
- the relevant "petition" and proposed "order" forms, either long-hand in front of a notary (apparently) or through their "DIY" wizard, based on whether you're in NYC or not
- if you're not in NYC, also do the "general" form here

4. Get your "petition" form notarized.
5. File at NYC Civil Court if you can because it's cheapest, otherwise your county's Supreme Court.
5. Attend court as instructed.
6. If approved, publish wherever the judge tells you to.
7. Armed with court order, get your social security card updated.
8. Change your driver's license and passport if you want/need to (I haven't looked into it beyond what I was told).
9. Those documents will easily justify the change to any employers etc. who might be difficult about adding your middle name (if you want them to), though honestly if you just say "I'd like to add my middle name," they'll probably assume it was originally an oversight and not ask for documentation.

Congratulations regardless of what you decide to do legalistically! :)
posted by teremala at 8:38 AM on June 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

There are no rules, so go wild.

My first wife had no middle name, then her maiden name became her middle name, and now she is back to no middle name.

My current wife had a middle name, and now two middle names after she moved over her maiden name.

Every male for the last 200 or so years in my buddy’s family is named William, and everyone goes by their middle name. There are literally dozens of them.

My grandfather lived to 80 was dead for 20 before we figured out that he the middle name he “knew” was wrong. His license, passport, and gravestone in a military cemetery have the wrong name.

A cousin found out his last name and middle name were actually reversed when he joined the Marine Corp. He was adopted by his mother’s new husband (my uncle), except something got screwed up in the paperwork.

Etc etc.
posted by sideshow at 12:25 AM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I did almost exactly this in NYC a year or so ago. Memail me if you want to talk it through and/or need a notary. It had many steps, some annoying and way more time consuming than they ought to be, but none of them difficult.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:23 PM on June 24, 2020

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