Listen to the names given to children born today and you will almost always find that the child is given a middle name. Many of us assume that middle names have always been given to children, but this is a misconception.
Middle names are one of the many naming customs that genealogists need to familiarize themselves with. Just as we need to understand patronymics when working with those ethnic groups that used such a naming system, so too should researchers familiarize themselves with other naming customs. It could prove to be the glue that brings an ancestor onto the family tree.
Middle names are a contemporary custom.
Why Middle Names?
"Middle names constitute what is almost a separate nomenclature, useful for minor purposes such as pacifying relations who want their names to live on, or perhaps genuinely acting as tokens of respect to namesakes," says Leslie Dunkling in The Guinness Book of Names. He goes on to point out that middle names are much like family heirlooms and should be preserved.
When my husband and I were naming our youngest daughter, we had just lost my grandfather. Because both of us where close to him, it seemed natural to us to give his surname as my daughter's middle name. While my grandfather had one son, the son had all daughters, thus the surname was ending with that generation. While my daughter will never have his surname as hers, the name has carried on one more generation and it has helped her to feel closer to someone she never did get to meet.
For others the naming custom may have been passed down through the generations as a family tradition. In some instances in early America, women would give their maiden name as a middle name to the oldest son so as not to have it lost completely.
A History of Middle Names
Few Americans were giving their children middle names in the 17th century until the German immigrants introduced this naming custom to America. They were in the habit of giving their children two given names at baptism. The first given name was a spiritual name, often a favorite saint's name, and the second one, which would later be known as the middle name, was the secular name. The secular name, or "call name" was the name by which the child was known and the name used in legal records. It was not uncommon for the spiritual name to be the same for all the children of the same sex within the family.
While the Germans would bring this custom to America, it was not until the early 19th century that the custom caught on with others. By the 1840s, it had grown into a popular practice. According to a study of college records, in 1840 about 92 percent of the students at Princeton had middle names. This custom would continue to grow and by World War I it was assumed that everyone in America had a middle name.
As genealogists, we should be thankful for this practice and how it grew. Many middle names are family names and when combined with other research, these names can help in building a case of connection from one generation to another. This is especially true when the middle name of a child in one generation is obscure and matches the given name of the potential grandparent.
So the next time you are working with ancestry, take a look at when middle names became prevalent in your tree. Does your family follow the traditions discussed here?
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.