Two middle names make a statement, one that usually reminds us of country manors, polo games, royalty, and presidents.
It’s never been a common practice in the U.S. to give two middle names. With today’s digitized records, it’s become a bit of a bureaucratic mess for those who have four (or more) initials to deal with. But with families having fewer children in general, the temptation to bestow two middle names — to honor several parents, for example — is strong.
Multiple middle names are far more common in Europe, where the German tradition of multiple names was carried to Britain by members of the royal family, who were of German descent. Edward VIII (later, the Duke of Windsor) had seven names in total: Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. The late Princess Diana memorably flubbed the order of two of Prince Charles’s middle names during their 1981 wedding.
Traditionally, the British upper class has used multiple names to indicate family connections, even going so far as changing surnames to reflect these bonds. In France, it is normal for citizens to have multiple middle names, though all names except the surname are referred to as “first names” on official documents.
While many British babies of both sexes are given two middle names today, in the past, the phenomenon was largely confined to men, as women traditionally shed their given middle name to replace it with their maiden name upon marriage.
Here are some well-known examples of the practice, from both sides of the pond:
- James Mercer Langston Hughes, American poet and novelist. His two middle names came from his mother’s middle and maiden names.
- George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st president of the United States. Walker was his mother’s maiden name.
- John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, British author of “The Lord of the Rings.” Reuel was a family name from his father’s side.
- George Raymond Richard Martin, American author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy series. Richard was his confirmation name, chosen as a teenager.
- James Hugh Calum Laurie, British actor who uses Hugh as his stage name.
- Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland, Canadian actor. The name Kiefer honored Warren Kiefer, who directed his father, Donald Sutherland, in his first film.
- George Alexander Louis Cambridge, son of Prince William and the former Kate Middleton. The young prince is third in line for the British throne.
- Kelsey Gabriel Elias Grammer and Faith Evangeline Elisa Grammer, children of American actor Kelsey Grammer.
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— Melanie Linn Gutowski