Why Do We Have Middle Names?

Frank Sinatra Headstone
We knew him as Frank, the Chairman of the Board, but did you know Sinatra's middle name was Albert? Mike Carrillo/Getty Images

Few things perplex expectant parents more than picking just the right name for their child — and the middle name is no exception. It must have both gravitas and joie de vivre, and set the tone for a lifetime of repetition on official forms. But what good is a middle name, anyway?

The modern tradition of inserting a middle name (or two) into a child's moniker most likely began in the Middle Ages when parents gave babies a personalized first name and a saint's name for a middle name, followed by a surname. By the mid-1800s, this European habit began to enter the United States, brought along by immigrants, and began to take on new significance. Middle names inspired by saints were sometimes replaced by nonreligious middle names, such as a maternal maiden name, and by the time the Civil War began in 1861, middle names were given purely at the parents' discretion — any name of their liking was fair game — and were often aspirational in nature, with two or three middle names given. After all, a fictional name like Peter Aurelius Oliver Smith carries a little more weight than plain ol' Pete Smith, doesn't it?


The idea of a middle name took hold in the U.S., and by the advent of World War I in 1914, official enlistment forms became the first government documents to request applicants' middle names. Middle names were so much the norm that when computers became routinely used for U.S. citizen documents, they were programmed to recognize three names. Not two. Or four. Only three. If a middle name wasn't entered, the program would automatically insert NMI, which was a military abbreviation for "no middle initial."

And for those without a middle name, let alone an initial? Invention is the key to success. For Joanne Kathleen Rowling, better known as J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, the middle name "Kathleen" is a fictional affect — appearing as if by magic.