Is there a tradition in the Southern USA that men go by their middle names?
June 8, 2007 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Is there a tradition in the Southern USA that men go by their middle names?

This topic came up today at work. There are 4 or 5 guys here who go by their middle names. However, each of them thinks that their case is a one-off, and no one knows the history behind this tradition.
posted by jbiz to Society & Culture (56 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If your first name is the same as your dad's, or your first name is a family name, it's common to go by your middle name, by your initials, or by a nickname or diminutive.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:10 AM on June 8, 2007

Are they Juniors (meaning, their fathers have the same name)?
posted by amro at 11:10 AM on June 8, 2007

And, yeah, it seems to be more common in the south to use a family name as a first name, or to have the same first name as your father (but maybe a different name).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:11 AM on June 8, 2007

It's not just men. My mom, her sister, and my grandma all go by their middle names - as do a lot of other people in the extended family. This is in Georgia.
posted by candyland at 11:12 AM on June 8, 2007

Both my mother and father (from Tennessee and Georgia, respectively) go by their middle names. So did most of my grandparents, and so do I. When my folks picked out my name, it was just assumed that my middle name would be the one I was called by. Definitely seems more common in the South than elsewhere. on preview: 2nd candyland.
posted by junkbox at 11:12 AM on June 8, 2007

I'm from Texas and I went by my middle name throughout my childhood. Now only family and close friends call me by my middle name. Same thing with my father. Not sure why.....
posted by meta87 at 11:13 AM on June 8, 2007

It's not a tradition, it's just not at all unusual. And it's not just men (my grandmother, one of my female cousins and I all do it, as do my father and at least one of my male cousins).

There can be a variety of reasons. You can get a first name from within the family (for instance, being named after your father) that is in use by another close relative and so you use your middle name to reduce confusion, or you can get a really horrible first name and use your middle to hide the awful one (even parents will realize that the first name is just godawful), or you can even get a somewhat plain and boring first name and your parents may intend all along to use the less-dull middle name. And sometimes, it just happens.

Big cultural difference: in the South, roll call the first day of school every grade (and into university classes) is generally preceded by the teacher saying "let me know if you go by something else". It's quite a shock to a middle-named Southerner to move out of the region and have to explain and explain. It's also a problem when you get a Midwestern teacher somewhere along the line in a Southern class and they don't ask.
posted by dilettante at 11:15 AM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh and neither of us are juniors. I will ask my Dad if he knows the reason behind it. From what I remember my grandfather just really liked my middle name and everyone just started going along with it.
posted by meta87 at 11:15 AM on June 8, 2007

My brother goes by his middle name, and we grew up in the Upper Midwest. The reasoning was that my mom and dad liked his middle name better, but we're Catholic, and at the time he was born, you needed a saint's name for your first name.

I also have another brother who was named for my dad, but within the family has always been called by another name (not his middle name), to distinguish the two.
posted by GaelFC at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2007

I have a friend from Chicago who is a III or IV (forget), and he goes by his middle name. A friend here in Austin who is a Junior went by his middle name through college, but after he finished college and moved to California, he started introducing himself with his first name.

I've always assumed it was to avoid being confused with their fathers; and in the case of friend #2, once his father was no longer nearby, he could use his actual first name without confusion.
posted by adamrice at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2007

I'm from the South, and a 3rd, but everyone in my southern family acted all weird when I wanted to try going by my middle name instead of my first.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2007

They weren't from the south, but my grandfather had several brothers and sisters. All the boys' first names were Joseph and the girls' Mary. They all went by their middle names.
posted by blaneyphoto at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2007

But we're all variations of William (Bill Sr., Billy Jr., Will III)
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:18 AM on June 8, 2007

my ancestors are from western PA and both my grandmother and grandfather went by their middle names... though the phenomenon seems to be confined to just the two of them, with the exception of my father. the rest of the family goes by their first name.
posted by joeblough at 11:22 AM on June 8, 2007

OK, here's how it went where I was from:

First born son was named for his father (eg John Beuregard Smith Jr.) and called by his middle name so as not to confuse him with(Beau). Second born son is named for maternal grandfather (eg James Brown Smith) and is called by his middle name so as not to confuse him with said grandfather (Brown).

That is where you get the middle named people and the guys with names that sound like last names (because they are).
posted by Pollomacho at 11:23 AM on June 8, 2007

It's quite a shock to a middle-named Southerner to move out of the region and have to explain and explain.

Especially if they go by a name that isn't on the page anywhere. Ie, men who go by Trey because they're III.

Me, my father, and his father have the same first name, but our middle names all differ.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:35 AM on June 8, 2007

Don't forget that John Beuregard Smith Jr.'s first born son would be named John Beuregard Smith III, and would go by the name "Trey" or "Trip". Then his first born son would be named John Beuregard Smith IV, and would go by the name "Ivy".

On preview and what not.
posted by ND¢ at 11:37 AM on June 8, 2007

All Southern family, rahtcheer. Long anecdotal post ahead.

Daddy's daddy and uncles all had aristocratic, almost decadent names—Clarence Eugene, Spencer Ashley and the like. They went by names like "Bill" and "Skinny." Daddy was Richard Noel, but he was always "Noel" (like knoll) for some reason.

Mama's daddy was Paul Joseph, going by Paul. Mama's brother was Paul Joseph Jr, going by Joe until he got out of the house and started going by Paul himself. He's still Joe to the family.

Mama's mama was Sallie Ruth, but when she got married, she dropped the Sallie. Daddy's mama was Mollie Virginia Dare, but she went by "Ruth" all her life, and can't explain why!

dilettante, all of my education was in the South, and I've never considered the possibility of a new teacher, substitute or professor not asking what a student prefers to go by.

Finally, I like Unknown Hinson's name explanation. "I'm named after my daddy. It's right here on my birth certificate. See? Mama, Miss Hinson. Daddy, Unknown."
posted by infinitewindow at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2007

A friend here in Austin who is a Junior went by his middle name through college, but after he finished college and moved to California, he started introducing himself with his first name.

This touches on an important point: that it's your parents who "pick" the name you go by, not you. You can change it with effort, but there are not that many places where it's easy to make a clean change after childhood — starting or finishing college is a popular time.
posted by smackfu at 11:41 AM on June 8, 2007

The other greath Souther tradition is going by both first and middle names
posted by Megafly at 11:42 AM on June 8, 2007

It doesn't seem especially Southern to me. There are so many reasons why people get names-- relgious reasons (for Jews), obligations, and just cultural tradition.

My mom was named Ruth Lila, Lila being a late friend of my grandmother's. The family liked the name and wanted to memorialize a woman who had died tragically, but I think they felt strange about a name that wasn't biblical. But my mother has always used her rare and beautiful middle name.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 11:58 AM on June 8, 2007

Megafly beat me to it. My Southern family (Alabama) goes by first and middle. And a lot of folks are given first names like Billy (not William) or Donnie (not Donald) and the middle names are shortened too, like Ray or Sue.
posted by jdl at 12:02 PM on June 8, 2007

Wow, this is great.

Regarding the people I was referring to in my original question, none of them are Juniors. One of them, his dad goes by his first name, while he goes by his middle.
posted by jbiz at 12:03 PM on June 8, 2007

Megafly -- I hear you!

I have a very common first name and was often one of three or four kids with that name in any given class. I refused to allow anyone to tack a "ny" on to the end of my name, so I ended up going through life as FirstNameLastName.

I have several friends who go by their middle names because their first name is some ridiculously pretentious family name (ie, and these are real, "Tidmarsh", "Hypatia", and, most unfortunately, "Wilberforce").
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:05 PM on June 8, 2007

My uncle Walter was known to his entire extended family as Pete, but absolutely no one else, including his own wife and kids, ever called him that (they called him Walt). Since his middle name was not Peter, no one is sure how he came to get that name.

He did, however, name his son Peter. This only caused confusion when the whole family got together.

(this has nothing to do directly with your question, it just sort of seemed to belong in this post.)
posted by briank at 12:16 PM on June 8, 2007

In the case of my family (aside from me - the only Texan - my family is Southern going several generations back), the men go by both their first name AND their middle name. Or in the case of my brother, he's a Jr (named after my dad), so he actually has a whole new NAME. Like, if his name is John Smith, Jr., he's called Robert Lee. Which is VERY confusing.
posted by damnjezebel at 12:21 PM on June 8, 2007

Amusing thread!

Grandfather Wilfred Hillary--"Little Boy"
his twin Wilson Albert-- "Big Boy"
My Father Wilfred Alfred-- "Big Bub"
his twin Wilson Albert-- "Little Bub"
My brother Wilfred Alfred Jr--"Bubbie"
I also had an Uncle Honey, Aunt Mamie--you get the drift.

However I knew someone with the legal name Star White but called Gloria. Never knew where the "Gloria" came from.
posted by dsaelf at 12:24 PM on June 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, yes from the south, I justed assumed by the nick-names everyone would know.
posted by dsaelf at 12:26 PM on June 8, 2007

It may be more common in the south, but it's not limited to it. both my parents families' were from the west coast (washington state) & their brothers/sisters largely went by middle names in childhood. (common/saints names for first names on mom's side, a jr. on my dad's side).

most of my mom's siblings still go by their middle name, and my dad's siblings go by first name at work now. my dad's still his middle name with relatives, but switched to his first name in school due to too many billy's. I didn't realize my aunt/uncles had different first names until I was a teenager.
posted by ejaned8 at 12:27 PM on June 8, 2007

Southern naming patterns are definitely different. My father was named Joseph after his father, so his father became Daddy Joe, and that's what we kids called him. My mother's father (from Iowa) was Grandpa Lastname, my father's was Daddy Joe.

he actually has a whole new NAME. Like, if his name is John Smith, Jr., he's called Robert Lee. Which is VERY confusing.

Yeah, it sure is. I'm not following: did they pick a name at random, out of the phone book or something?
posted by languagehat at 12:28 PM on June 8, 2007

Languagehat, it's a whole new name. NO ONE in my family is named "Robert", "Lee" or anything resembling them. Supposedly, "Robert Lee" was picked out for him when he was born before they decided on him being a Jr.

We Southerners.... we're a tad kooky.
posted by damnjezebel at 12:55 PM on June 8, 2007

While we're on the topic, an interesting tidbit about names in some old New Orleans families that came up in a discussion the other day:

If you are the youngest in a direct line of family members with the same first name, you are Firstname Junior, regardless of how many have come before you. Your father is Firstname Senior. His father has a nickname - perhaps a goofy one, like "Boodie," but nobody acts like it's goofy. Your brothers, who, because they're younger, did not get the direct family line first name, but nonetheless got first names from somewhere in the family, go by Firstname Middlename.

How's that for tricky?
posted by rush at 1:05 PM on June 8, 2007

I'm from the South, named after my father, and have always gone by my middle name. On top of that, my mother insisted that I be named "Blah Blah Blah II", so that I wouldn't be called "Junior"!
posted by trip and a half at 1:07 PM on June 8, 2007

Some of that is a southern thing to some degree but some of it is that the kids don't really like their first names. I have friends in both catagories.
posted by magikker at 1:23 PM on June 8, 2007

One uncle (who was not a junior) was known by his middle name for no discernable reason. Another uncle (who WAS a junio) went by a random name.

A cousin was always known by his middle name. Now as an adult and living in Georgia, he goes by his first name.
posted by clh at 1:30 PM on June 8, 2007

In New England, if you have the same name as your dad, you probably even have the same nickname. My grandfather was William and called "Bill," My father is William and called "Bill," and I am William and called "Bill." We don't have to have separate nicknames because you can tell from a subtle difference in tone whether someone is calling you or another family member:

First trip to my parents house with my future wife (who is not from New England), my mother was yelling "Bill!" all over the house.

"Would you answer your mother?" said my wife.

"She's looking for Dad," I said.

"How can you tell?" she asked.

"I can just hear it."

Now my wife can tell whether Mum is looking for me or Dad, too.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:35 PM on June 8, 2007

I'm named after my maternal grandfather (first) and paternal grandfather (middle), but when I'm around either I go by my first and middle together. I grew up in Oregon, but the rest of the family's from the east coast originally.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:37 PM on June 8, 2007

I never thought of this as a Southern thing, but it's pretty common in my Tennessee and Kentucky based experience. I tend to agree that it probably has to do with the prevalence of using family names. My lineage goes: Mary Lee (my great-great grandmother), Martha Frances (who went by Frances), Donna Lee, Paula Frances, Martha Lee (me).

My brother is named after our father's side where James Noble (called Noble) had Mark Kevin (our dad) and James David (who goes by David). My brothers are James Abram (called Abram) and Nathaniel Kevin (Nathan). My fiance's family in Tennessee follows a very similar pattern.

Not to mention my uncle Hoy D. Allen II. The "D" doesn't stand for anything, and he goes by Bubba.
posted by mostlymartha at 1:44 PM on June 8, 2007

I had no idea this was a Southern thing! I've lived in the South my entire life but only known a couple middle name users... I just assumed the "let me know if I need to call you anything different" happened everywhere. Very interesting thread.

Also, in addition to "Trey" and "Ivy" (which I'd never heard before), I know of one family where a Trey's father (who I guess is a Jr.) goes by Chip.
posted by SuperNova at 2:01 PM on June 8, 2007

Teachers usually asked 'let me know what you go by' in my classes, but it was almost always for Michael -> Mike, or Jessica -> Jess, or something like that. There may have been 1 or 2 people total that I knew that went by a middle name, and in both cases it was because their first name was common enough that there were 3-4 people in a 30-person class named that.
posted by devilsbrigade at 2:06 PM on June 8, 2007

My fiancé was raised in Louisiana and goes by his middle name. I grew up in Missouri and it's relatively common there; college professors tell students to let them know if they go by something other than the name that's on file.
posted by Saellys at 2:13 PM on June 8, 2007

Growing up in the South, I just assumed teachers always, everywhere, asked you if you went by any other names.

My father is a Charles III. He goes by Chuck. My Grandad was Charles, Jr., and he went by Charles (as an adult) and was called Chuck growing up, (which lead to confusion when I met an elderly childhood friend who referenced him by that name). My great-grandfather went by Charles. Oddly, no one ever went by their middle name. Yet, at the same time, they lived in a community where it was rather common to either go by First and Middle name, or Middle name, or by Nicknames (my great-uncle was named for his great-grandfather, but had the name Skinny, and the other great-uncle, named Forrest, went by Frosty).

In one of his works, David Hackett Fischer, offers a pretty clear explanation of naming patterns for the South, and I think, even New England practices. There were differences, with the Southern side using family names and recycling the same names over and over and over.
posted by Atreides at 2:42 PM on June 8, 2007

My brother and I both go by our middle names, but neither one of us is named after our dad and we're not from the South. We grew up in northern Virginia, above the Sweet Tea Line.

But my dad, Arley Francis Lastname, was named after his dad, Arley Columbus Lastname, and my dad's middle name, Francis, was his mom's last name. My dad went by Tom (we're not sure where that came from) and my grandfather went by Buck (ditto). My family's from southern Missouri.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:10 PM on June 8, 2007

And, thankfully, my name isn't Arley.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:11 PM on June 8, 2007

My two younger brothers, my dad, and my mom all go by their middle names, but they're not from the South; we're from the Northeast. I always thought that I was weird for going by my first name.
posted by kdar at 4:24 PM on June 8, 2007

I was in high school before I fully realized my father's first name was Donald, and not Bud. My mother called him that until his family all died or moved away. Now, she calls him Don.
posted by mimo at 4:36 PM on June 8, 2007

I grew up in the south; I simply assumed that when all people got to around elementary or middle school age they went through the process of choosing which name they wanted to go by. About half my friends growing up used their middle names; half their first.

Also, in my family it was a tradition (now dying out, I believe) to give girls shortish first names with middle names that were one syllable or could be shortened to one syllable - common ones would be Henrietta, Rebecca, Lee, etc. Then the girl would go by, say, Janie Etta or Janie Ree.
posted by frobozz at 4:48 PM on June 8, 2007

Father’s from southern Mississippi. The first born son is named his father’s first name as his first and mother’s maiden name as his middle name. He was not a junior. The son would be called by his middle name. It made it very easy to trace the family tree!

Some of the maiden names were okay, some were down right cruel. Can you imagine being called “Tingle”?

I kept with the tradition using my maiden name as my son’s middle name, but call him by his first.
posted by JujuB at 5:30 PM on June 8, 2007

North Carolina-centric here.

My name is Sara, and I was named after an aunt and a great aunt, so I'm somewhat of a III. The aunt that is still alive goes by Sissy (Sister). My family calls me Sara Catherine or S.C., but everyone in high school, college, and in the professional arena calls me Sara LastName.

My mom was named after her father, who had a middle initial as an only name. My cousins (all male; I'm the only female) all have double names, and outside of the family they are referred to as FirstName LastName.

One of my friend's name is James Chadwick LastName, goes by Chad, and his dad's first name is James, but his middle name is something different.

My best friend is a III, but goes by his first name, his father goes by the middle name, and the grandfather goes by "Big FirstName."

This is a fascinating thread.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 10:01 PM on June 8, 2007

Oh, I forgot to add that I had a client at my old job who went by the nickname "Pete," even though his name was Robert.

His dad's nickname was also Pete, but his name was not Robert nor was it Peter.

We got a kick out of that. But, we were bored.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 10:03 PM on June 8, 2007

Large Alabama family on the mom's side, and this phenomenon is widespread as well as sporadic. There seems to be no rhyme or reason behind it, but firstname middlename is more common than justmiddlename, which is more common still that madeupnickname. I do notice, however, that it often (but not with any sort of regularity) stems from a highly common familial name (I can fill up both hands with Johns that don't go past second cousins, same with Mary/Maries), or a highly common biblical name (John and Mary/Marie both still apply.).
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 2:42 AM on June 9, 2007

It's not a tradition, it's not just men, and it's nationwide, not just in the South.
posted by oaf at 6:28 AM on June 9, 2007

I was at school with a boy called Owen Owen Owen, who went by Owen Owen (though it was obviously hard to tell if this meant we were calling him by his first and last names, or his first and middle names). His father and grandfather were both named Owen Owen too, as were earlier Owens, as in Owen Owen. Of course, according to the old Welsh patronymic system, Owen Owen Owen ought really to have been called Owen ab Owen, as should the anteceding Owen Owens.
posted by jack_mo at 6:52 AM on June 9, 2007

There are only three or four women's names in my Southern family, so there are lots of nicknames and middle names. My favorite: my grandmom has a cousin who looked like no one in the family when she was a baby and so, while she had perfectly nice first and middle names, she was never ever called anything but Jones.
posted by smoakes at 2:44 PM on June 9, 2007

Don't know if anyone is still reading this, but thought I'd add some further name weirdness from my North Carolina family while I'm thinking about it.

My maternal grandmother was "Tom". Us kids called her "Nanny Tom". Her real name was Amanda, but I never heard anyone call her anything but "Tom". All three of her daughters go/went by their middle names.

Her husband, my maternal grandfather, went by "Doc". His given name was Doctor Thaddeus. He was named after the doctor who delivered him when he was born. Go figure.

On my dad's side, the southern tradition of two names for the ladies held sway. My dad's mom was "May Belle" and her daughter was "Metta Mae". (Yes, Metta!)
posted by trip and a half at 10:42 AM on June 11, 2007

I had a Minnesotan great-aunt and uncle who were twins and went by "Brub" and "Sis" their whole lives. I have no idea what their actual names were.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:44 AM on June 11, 2007

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