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Friday, 14 May 2010

Who Am I? On Naming, and Being Named


- What’s your middle name?

- “Joy”

- No, your middle name.

- “Joy”

- You’re Joy Joy? (I will refrain from commenting further on this..and yes, it actually happens)

- “No, Joy is my middle name” (stated clearly and patiently)

- Then, what’s your first name?

- “Catherine”

- Weird, I never knew your real name was Catherine! (Variation: Wow, so you’re really a Catherine! – or, worse yet - So, Joy isn’t your real name?)

And yes, I do let the conversation run like that, rather than helping people out right from the start even if I can see where things are headed. I like to know what type of person I am dealing with :)

Allow me to introduce myself: I am Catherine Joy.

Sorry, should I have told you to sit down first? Well, after dusting yourself off, and planting yourself somewhere safe, feel free to continue reading about the fascinating issue of “going by your middle name.”

After reading a bit of adoption board discussion around naming and re-naming children, I decided to do a little “research” to see what I could find about using middle names in everyday life (to clarify, the adoption discussion is not what I am responding to – that was simply interesting – I am moving away from that friendly & innocent chat, into my own off-shoot, in which I may have some stronger sentiments to express).


I have always been amazed that some people truly don’t seem to have been exposed to others who “go by” their middle names. And I have generally been mildly amused by people’s responses when they learn my big secret. But I am beginning to realize there is a much deeper cultural system involved. That I am part of a sub-culture - a cultural minority – and that I actually cannot grasp the meaning of this phenomenon to people in the majority culture (e.g., those who go by their first names, particularly those who have little/no exposure to people who go by their middle names).

It makes me wonder: did I miss the mandatory pre-kindergarten class where everyone except me learned that first names are “real” names, and middle names are…fake…or that people who go by middle names are like some sort of fantasy creature come to life…something you can’t possibly be prepared for, so there will be no way to mask your confusion and surprise if and when you actually meet someone like this?

Maybe while everyone else took that class, I was in the “How Not to Act Shocked or Uninformed When You Are Exposed to Something Different Than Your Own Personal Experience” session.

I have actually enjoyed going by my middle name. I don’t mind being a bit “different’ (although am sometimes surprised by how “different” some seem to think I am as a result of this name business). During name discussions, I often begin to sense that I am interacting with someone whose cultural experience is very different than mine. Folks who seem totally comfortable with the fact that they are surprised, and even confused by my name situation – as if I am the strange one. I, on the other hand, feel a mixture of embarrassment toward the OTHER person for their apparent simplicity of mind (sorry, kind of), and mild annoyance at their seeming inability to grasp something so…clear.


Most of us have two given names (some more, some less). I simply grew up knowing that, and knowing that a person was generally called by one name or the other. I don’t recall being surprised even to learn that some people go by neither – perhaps some variation or traditional alternative to one of their given names, which is not always a direct short form – the John who is called “Jack” scenario, for instance). These truths are just part of my experience.


This so-called research was not exhaustive, but a few forums, including an extended discussion at babycenter.com seem to capture the primary perspectives and opinions I found online regarding the use of middle names in everyday life.

I Don’t Get It

“I know of a few girls my age whose first name by law is Mary, but they use their middle name as their first name. I was just wondering if anyone here knows the tradition behind this? I understand it could be a family namesake, and they use their middle name so as not to confuse family members. Or is it because they don’t really like their first name and choose to go by their middle name.”

Comment: I need to point out that both the first and middle names are lawful, if they are on the birth certificate (and they are both “real” – just as adoptive parents are “real” parents…just had to throw that one in there). One does not generally use a middle name by actually calling it a first name (unless filling out a form which does not require a full legal name, perhaps, and just putting the “called by” name in the first name space). The middle name is a middle name. One may go by either the first or middle name – going by the middle name does not have to be considered using it as a “first” name. And in regard to why people go by middle names…there’s not really any big mystery, and there is more than one explanation. I could ask, “Why do people usually go by their first names? Is there some rule about that in their culture or family? Do they hate their middle names? Was the name order given on purpose? Have they always used their first names?”

“Funny…in class…the professor was calling role and got to Megan, and she said she goes by Paige. I was like, how…do you get Paige from Megan? [Now I realize] Maybe it’s a middle name.”

Comment: Um, yes. Perhaps it is. You really didn’t consider that possibility until stumbling upon a middle name discussion?

“I was shocked to learn that one of my oldest and dearest friends from childhood (Sam) is actually James. I laughed so hard because I couldn’t believe that I knew someone for so long and had no idea that they had a different name!”

Comment: Keeping my mouth shut.

What a Pain

Blech, not my style at all. I mean, really? What’s the point in setting up your kid for a hassle their entire lives?”

Comment: I have never felt “set up” or “hassled” and…”blech”??? Is it yucky to use a middle name?

“Don’t do it!!!!!!!!! I go by my middle name and it’s a total pain, especially now that everything is computerized.”

Comment: I am sorry that something like this is so stressful.

“I hate when I go somewhere, like the doctor’s office, and my insurance card doesn’t match my file and I eventually have to go into this long story [about my grandmother and mother’s names, and the pattern of names in my family]…”

Comment: Then don’t go into a long story. I automatically provide both names when I introduce myself at appointments, simply explaining that my record may have one, the other, or both. And if I am called by my first name, I either go along with it (which is interesting, knowing this person thinks of you by a name you don’t normally go by), or quickly clarify that I use my middle name. On forms requiring both names, I circle my middle name as a cue. I actually have more trouble with my hyphenated last name than my first/middle name situation. Now that is another discussion altogether…my last name starts with the letter of the name before the hyphen…not so tricky. The name before the hyphen actually counts. Moving on…

No Big Deal

“My older brother goes by his middle name. He always has. As far as I know it just mildly shocks people when they find out. It hasn’t ever caused him any issues.”

Comment: True…and it is mildly amusing that people are so easily “mildly shocked.”

“I teach school and there are always at least two kids each year who go by their middle names…it’s not a big deal to me.”

“My youngest daughter does by her middle name, but it wasn’t something we planned at all. Her given name is Caroline Margaret, with Margaret being after my grandmother. My grandmother died shortly after my daughter was born and we just sort of started calling her Margaret and now she will tell us adamantly that her name is Margaret, not Caroline.”

“It hasn’t really been an issue…the first time we go to classes, preschool, or doctors, we have to tell them to make a note, which isn’t a huge deal.”

“My husband does by his middle name and always has. He signs documents “John T.” but goes by Tom. It hasn’t caused any real problems, and most people don’t even know he goes by his middle name.”

Comment: And I just sign using my first initial and full middle name along with my last name (pre-hyphen last name included…because it is a real name, too – just look at my ID).

“I have always gone by my middle name, and my daughter goes by her middle name. And if our next one is a boy, he will go by his middle name. Why? Well, my mother wanted to name me after my grandmother but not call me by that name, and the names just sounded better with “Susan” (the name I go by) in the middle. And if it were such a hassle would I have done it to my daughter? No, I would not. We named our daughter after out two grandmothers, one of whom is Ann. We thought that name was a little too common for our taste, so we call her by the other grandmother’s name, but Ann just sounds better first.”

“It is only mildly confusing when you’re, say, getting a prescription filled or on the first day of school. Other than that, the people who know you call you by the name you go by, and it’s very easy to tell when a telemarketer who’s just pretending to know you is on the phone!”

“My daughter goes by her middle name and I don’t think it is at all confusing or a hassle. She uses first and middle names on medical stuff but everyone should do that anyway. A few people call her by her first name and she knows what it is so she answers. At school, it has her first and middle names, but most teachers know her by her middle name before she gets to the class, but she can always tell them she goes by her middle name. I just don’t see where it would be confusing or a hassle. I’ve taught for over 10 years about 100 kids per year and about ¼ of them go by their middle name or a short version of their first name.”

“My husband and I are both prime examples of going by our middle names. We are both named after our parents and it has always been easier for us to go by our middle names instead of the first names our parents go by. I don’t find this strange or weird. And never have I had an issue of confusion.”

Comment: Thank you.

“They are BOTH her names and I imagine if she likes using her middle name as the name to address her as she gets older, she’ll want to stick with it. I don’t know why it would cause confusion since it’s part of her full name.”

Comment: Yes, yes, and yes!


Could I have been doing something more productive with my day than organizing this long blog post? Yes.


Please teach your children that there are many ways of naming and using names. Even if they go by their first names, if properly informed, they will appear very smart when they meet people who use their middle names, and may make new friends from a different name culture! Better yet, call your children by their middle names – we’re pretty cool people :)


Tasha said...

I loved reading your post! We just adopted our 4 year old son, QingXin Julian from China last month and have kept QingXin as his first name and are planning to call him Julian (his middle name!), therefore this post was very interesting to me! We chose to keep our son's given name as his first name to honour it and wanted to give him Julian as the middle name that he will go by here ;0)
Thanks for the post ;0)
Sincerely, Tasha

Ruth Branson said...

Very funny to read, Catherine Joy (who shall likely always be JOY to me!). They're BOTH lovely names!!


Jamey... said...

We just adopted our daughter and are leaving her first name that her first mother gave her and adding a middle name of our choosing, but we will call her by her middle name. I think that it makes sense that REALLY was her FIRST name, it shows respect, it gives her privacy so she doesn't have to share her story, but it keeps her past from being too easily overlooked in the day to day issues of life because it will come up now and again.