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The power and peril of the middle name

JK Rowling; form saying "middle name"; Harold Wilson; Bruce Willis; Elton John

As whistleblower Edward Snowden discovered this week, it pays to have another name to fall back on. Charles (William) Nevin looks at the power of the middle name.

Anyone who has ever wondered about the point, exactly, of a middle name will do well to note the case of the world's currently most famous whistleblower, Edward Joseph Snowden, or, possibly, Edward James Snowden, or Edward J Snowden. It was this confusion, says the Hong Kong government, that led to Snowden leaving the city despite a request from the United States for his arrest.

Whatever is to be made of the Hong Kong government explanation, there's no doubt that it adds a little irony to the already rich mix of leak, flight and debate, since the principal point, exactly, of a middle name is to distinguish bearers of the same first and last names.

Up until comparatively recently, most of the English-speaking world got along without a middle name. George Washington was plain George Washington, for example. The William Pitts, father and son, prime ministers, had to be distinguished by the suffixes, Elder and Younger.

Image caption Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (Hugh Laurie), and Jeeves (Stephen Fry)

But the great 19th Century population explosion in industrialised Britain and the rapidly growing United States led to more and more middle names, helped by the usual pursuit of fashion by the aspiring middle classes (in England, the nobility had become accustomed to numbers of names, probably because they were a much smaller group, but possibly because they had more time on their hands to think them up).

The choice of the name itself has become subject to various influences. The mother's family name is popular (although that is more and more often being employed to form a double-barrelled surname, with or without the hyphen). Or it might be a name that has been frequent within either branch of the family, or to honour a favoured kind aunt or jolly uncle, especially, in some circles, if they have an interesting will to make.

Parents of a whimsical turn might also want to commemorate something precious to them. Anyone old enough to remember the beautifully observed and very funny comedy series written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, The Likely Lads, will remember that the full name of one of them, Bob, was, much to his embarrassment, Robert Scarborough Ferris, after the place of his honeymoon conception.

Image caption The Likely Lads - Robert Andrew Scarborough Ferris and Terence Daniel Collier

Bertie Wooster's middle name was, you might remember, Wilberforce, in memory of, not the great reformer, but a racehorse which his pater had happily backed. Bearing the names of the 11 members of your dad's football team can be a highly amusing cross to bear, too, particularly if they have a number of foreign players that refuse to roll off the British tongue.

The middle name has also come to serve another vital purpose: for use if the first name doesn't quite suit its bearer for the above or any other reason. Alex Johnson, for example, doesn't quite have the same distinctive appeal as Boris Johnson. (Similarly but conversely, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was originally named Gideon Oliver Osborne but put George in front when he was 13, cruelly neglecting Oliver Osborne, which has a fine ring to it.)

Actually, Boris, like many another member of the upper classes, has multiple middle names: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is the full handle. But this is positively terse compared to that of his Conservative colleague, Richard Drax, MP, more properly Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. To be fair, though, these are mostly surnames, although one of his forebears was Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

Politicians, for some reason, seem more chary of the parental choice than most, as you can see with Maurice Harold Macmillan, James Harold Wilson, Leonard James Callaghan and several other prime ministers last century, including Arthur Neville Chamberlain. This is not quite so common in the US, where Barack Hussein Obama has said, "I got my first name from my father, and I got my middle name from someone who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president." His vice-president, Joseph Robinette Biden, would most likely agree.

William Somerset Maugham and Joseph Rudyard Kipling both made sensible choices, as did Adeline Virginia Woolf. George Bernard Shaw hated his first name, but soldiered on. Others have retreated into initials - Clive Staples Lewis, for example, sounds more like a firm of chartered accountants than CS Lewis (who, even more confusingly, was known as Jack). The Kathleen in Joanne Kathleen Rowling is adopted. As for actors, I will give you, merely, Eldred Gregory Peck and Walter Bruce Willis. Walters, I would submit, with apologies for my nominativism, do not die hard.

Image caption "Where did I put my middle names?"

Less frequent here than in the US is the first-name/middle-initial combination, as in Harry S Truman or David O Selznick, the producer of Gone With The Wind. Official US records often contain "NMI" for "No Middle Initial" if parents had absent-mindedly or rebelliously failed to provide one, which is why Selznick's stood for O as in zero. (Truman's was only an initial, for both his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young). But the last word, or initial, here should go to that hero of The A Team: "First name Mr, middle name 'Period', last name T!"

Finally, if you are of a very whimsical turn and expecting, I would remind you of Harper Seven Beckham, Rain Joan of Arc Phoenix, and Sir Elton Hercules John. Danger, though, as in "danger is my middle name", has already been given to their children by, at least, Mr and Mrs Wills of England and Mr and Mrs James of Australia. And National Middle Name Pride Day is 10 March.

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