Why a middle name?

In ancient Rome, having multiple names was an honor usually bestowed upon the most important people—like Gaius Julius Caesar. During the Middle Ages, people generally had only one fixed name. Any other name that was added was used as a form of description about the person, such as John the Baker or William the Smith. A name also told about the person’s ancestry, such as Jackson (son of Jack), or it was an indication of the place where the person lived, such as Brooke or Ford. It could be an occupation, as well, like Taylor or Cooper. Other middle names described a physical characteristic, such as Cameron (bent nose) or Cole (black as coal). Middle names died out only to pick back up again in Western cultures in the 1700s, when aristocrats started giving their children long names to indicate their place in society. Eventually, middle names were used to help distinguish children in their communities or they served religion roles, such as using a saint’s name to bless the child. Many middle names are surnames depicting a person’s lineage, especially in Spanish and Arabic cultures. They also give a person the option to use either first or middle names, depending on their likes. In my book Inspired Baby Names from Around the World, the point is made that middle often serve as adjectives to describe first names. For example, Nelson Mandela’s middle name was Rolihlahla, which means “pulling the branch of a tree” or “troublemaker.” Nelson means “cloud,” but also means “champion.” This name fit Nelson Mandela extraordinarily well: as everyone knows, he was imprisoned by the South African apartheid government for being a “troublemaker,” and yet he became a champion of human rights. His troublemaking cloud had a silver line, one that inspired millions around the world!

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