FIRST, MIDDLE, LAST

Going on with my research into onomastics, I turned to its branch anthroponymy – the study of names of human beings. Nowadays we may feel awkward when we misspell other people’s names while addressing them in writing. However, the pressure to use a standard spelling of personal names did not emerge in Europe until the 18th century: earlier writers saw no problem in spelling a person’s name in a variety of ways. For this reason, there exist variations that involve only a single letter – Steven and Stephen, Catherine and Katherine (the pronunciation is the same). There’s also Christina.

Many names have shortened forms or forms with endings marking familiarity (like Steve or Cathy). It was strange for Russian people, who used names of their government leaders with patronymics and all possible titles, to hear the Americans address their 39th President Jimmy (Carter). Just to compare: t

he General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Comrade Leonid Illiych Brezhnev. Nobody would ever have thought of saying “Lyonia Brezhnev” at any kind of official gathering (true, the diminutive “Lyonia” was used in reference to Mr. Brezhnev in “political jokes”, for which one could be expelled from a university or even imprisoned).

‘Is there any particular reason your middle name is stinky?’

Personal names in English are classified into three types. The first name (or given name, formerly called the Christian name) is distinguished from the surname (family name, or last name), and both of these from the middle name(s), where present. In the early Middle Ages, there were only first names. Surnames came later (in the 14th century) as additional names to aid identification between people who had the same given name. The practice of using one or more middle names did not emerge until the 17th century, and there were soon divergences between Britain and the USA. The American fashion was to use the middle name, routinely reducing it to an initial letter. The British fashion was either to ignore the middle name, or to keep it in full, especially when it was needed to maintain a family tradition, or to distinguish other identical names.

Sometimes middle names were functioning as surnames. For example, in case of John Arthur Jones and John Bryn Jones, people talked familiarly about John Arthur and John Bryn. Sequences of middle names are also to be found, especially when a family finds itself having to remember particular relatives or ancestors, or when religious or other practices intervene (such as adding a saint’s name).

It’s interesting to compare middle names of the 32nd and 33rd presidents of the United States – Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. While D. in Roosevelt’s name stands for Delano, S. in Truman’s name stands for nothing. Truman’s grandfathers were Solomon Young and Shippe Truman. As his daughter recalled: “Dad owed the middle initial in his name to both grandparents. To placate their touchy elders, his parents added an S, but studiously refrained from deciding whether it stood for Solomon or Shippe.”

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