My middle name is a gray area. Literally.

My middle name is Gray.

I’ve written before about last names, or surnames as they are called in the United States and other parts of the world, but until recently, I hadn’t thought too much about why we have or need a middle name.

In regard to history, last names are a relatively recent thing. Only used for the past few hundred years for most of us who trace our roots back to Europe, the last name came about as a means of identifying in what area you lived, your line of work, which father or family you belonged to, or in some cases, a religious affiliation.

Moore most likely refers to a moor, which is a bog area. So, my last name would point out a geographical area in Europe where my ancestors used to hang out. Glad we’re not still hanging out at the bogs. Lots of people found themselves sacrificed and tossed into said bog to appease the gods of the day.

But, the middle name. Why do some people have more than one, why do some not have one, why do some folks go by their middle name instead of their first, and why do some people have a middle initial that doesn’t stand for anything?

From my brief surfing of the World Wide Web, I learned a lot about middle names. They are used for different reasons in different cultures. Some Asian cultures use no middle name. Other cultures use a previous family member’s surname as the middle name, while others use a tribe-affiliated name as part of their middle name.

There are plenty of famous people with multiple middle names. President George Herbert Walker Bush, Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, and Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon are a few examples. But the shocking one I discovered was Pablo Picasso. His full name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso.

Turns out, that with the way the U.S. government sets up computer recordkeeping, people who have more than one middle name are having to pick one. The systems often don’t allow for more than one middle name, or in some cases, one initial. Prince Charles doesn’t have to worry about that, Picasso has left us, Reese has enough money that she doesn’t have to care, but I bet President Bush got a pass on that technological limitation.

Ironically, if you don’t have a middle name, they often make you put N.M.N. for no middle name, or N.M.I. for no middle initial. Gotta love the efficiency of the government.

The truth is, we don’t need a middle name at all. As obvious as that is, in the U.S. we are now so accustomed to everyone having a middle name, we find it odd when we meet a person who is missing one. I’ve met people with no middle name, but not very many. The ones I’ve talked to who don’t have one seemed proud of that fact. A famous example of no middle name is J.K. Rowling, who writes the Harry Potter books. More about her later.

I was surprised at the number of celebrities who go by their middle name. Troyal Garth Brooks, Henry Ross Perot, James Paul McCartney, Walter Bruce Willis, Thomas Sean Connery, William Bradley Pitt, Henry Warren Beatty, and even a president, John Calvin Coolidge.

And then there’s the middle initial that has no meaning. The S in Harry S. Truman doesn’t stand for anything. Supposedly, President Truman’s parents did that to appease both sides of the family who had names that started with an S. Rather than pick one, they settled on an initial.

The J in Michael J. Fox also doesn’t stand for anything. His given name is Michael Andrew Fox, but there was already a Michael Fox registered in the Screen Actors Guild. As the story goes, he didn’t care for Michael A. Fox, so he went with a J.

Remember J.K. Rowling? Joanne Rowling has no middle name, but her publisher encouraged her to use initials. So, she decided to add the K to J.K. Rowling to honor her grandmother, Kathleen.

I enjoy learning about things that aren’t always what they seem. Areas that aren’t definitive. But, that’s OK. After all, gray is my middle name.

Read more of Moore’s musings at johnmoore.net/blog.

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