When were middle names first used?
Karen Stern, a historian at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, has said the Romans had three names, but their naming system was not quite the same as today’s use of a “middle name.” They used a praenomen or personal name; a nomen, or family name, which “has the same placement as a middle name but has a different function;” and a cognomen, which, she says, was a nickname indicating an attribute or, eventually, what branch of a family you were from.
According to TIME magazine, at some point the custom of long names faded, lost for centuries. According to Stephen Wilson’s The Means of Naming: A Social History, “the custom probably began in Italy” of bringing back the middle name, and could be found there least as early as the late 13th century. The practice first became common among the elites—among whom it was common by the late 1400s—and then spread to other social classes. The following century it spread to the countryside and took another hundred years to spread to some of the more isolated locations. The majority of these early middle names in Italy were those of saints, with the idea what that those saints would protect the children who bore their names.
Eventually, the use of middle names spread throughout Spain and France, the idea often carrying with it the class and religious dimensions it had gained in Italy.
England’s upper classes began using middle names somewhat later. In 1605 William Camden, a British historian, wrote that “Two Christian names are rare in England.” That held true until the 19th century, though only about 10% of the British population had a middle name in 1800, writes Wilson. The timing is mirrored in early modern Scotland, says Alice Crook, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow who analyzed Presbyterian records from 62,456 children born in Scotland between 1680 and 1839. She found middle names rare until about 1780 when their popularity began to rise dramatically—almost 99% of children in her sample who had middle names were born after 1780.
According to Ancestry.com, no one on the Mayflower had a middle name, nor did most of the Founding Fathers. Only three of the first 17 American presidents had a middle name. Ancestry.com says German immigrants introduced this naming custom to America. In the 19th century, the population boomed in the United States and Europe, and people felt they needed more names to stand out. As they do today, middle names often carried familial significance, such as the mother’s maiden name or the given name of a favorite relative. By 1900, almost all Americans had one.