It was not until the 16th Century in England and later in this country that we began to acquire middle names.
These began as an additional Christian name given at confirmation ceremonies in the Old Country. German immigrants were the first to consistently use middle names in this country. In America, a boy was often given his mother's maiden name as a middle name.
Middle names at first honored a maternal line; they gave an alternative to a common or disliked "first name" or perked up a plain name, according to Leonard R. N. Ashley in his new book, "What's in a Name?" (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21202, $21.45 postage paid). He cites examples of William French Smith and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Ashley, one of the foremost scholars on names, believes that girls should be given middle names that connect them to maternal as well as paternal relatives.
"It is particularly American," he says, "to reduce middle names to initials. The U.S. armed forces expect you to have three names: a first name, a middle name and a last name. If you have no middle name you'll go down in the records as NMI (no middle initial)."
When choosing a middle name for your child, Ashley suggests you first see how the mother's maiden name sounds with the father's, and keep in mind the initials that will result. You might think twice about naming a child Christopher Isherwood Anderson, for instance.
Using a middle name is one way to avoid the dreaded Jr. , which some psychiatrists say gives the child a sense of being a carbon copy, not an original, and a name to live up to (or live down) that is not truly his. Some studies have shown that a child named after one of his parents stands a greater chance of being abused. In a Veterans Administration mental hospital, Junior turned up three times more often than in the general population. However, that 1971 study is disputed, Ashley says.
"Ideally we should abandon the 'Sr.' and 'Jr.' business just as the British have given up the Elder and the Younger," he says.
Ashley has some other thoughts to consider about personal names:
* Names exert great power.
* Few men have grown into greatness whose names are subject to ridicule.
* Be as considerate with the names of others, including your own children, as you want people to be with yours.
* Our names make us as much as we make our names.