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Middle Names: The Strange, The Ordinary, and The Embarrassing

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Bestselling novelist JACQUELYN MITCHARD, whose new book No Time To Wave Goodbye, a sequel to her Deep End of the Ocean, will be published this month, meditates on the middle name as payback, placeholder…..and downright embarrassment.

Middle names often are payback – a best friend, a deceased auntie, a family crest. My son Will‘s name is William Gordon Pendragon Brent, because of contributions from his brothers and godparents. Many, many people hate their middle names, especially if they’re names such as Miriam, Ursula or Von. Others adore them: Novelist Harper Lee‘s real first name was Nelle (pronounced “Nell“), Carson McCullers’ first name was Lula, and, in the modern era, the great Lorrie Moore‘s given first name is … well, Marie.

Some people don’t have middle names. My agent does not. Her name is Jane. Plain Jane, while her sister has a first and middle name. My husband doesn’t have a middle name. When he fills out documents, his middle name is “NMI,” or “No Middle Initial.” So the kids say his name is Christopher Nimmie.

Recently, I took a desktop poll. It was based on my old pal Tim Cuprisin’s contention that everyone we grew up with in Chicago had the middle name Marie.

Indeed, Marie was a favorite among our 50s or 60s-born contemporaries. Horsing around between fitful bouts of writing the news, Tim and I gave even our male co-workers the middle name Marie (James Marie, Tommy Marie). Years later, my 13-year-old and I play this same game, asking around to discover the hidden middle Maries. Kazart! Many young girls’ middle names are either Marie or that other ’50s-60s favorite, Ann, even if the person’s first name is Keihley or Phyllis, Maya or Serena.

What is it about Ann or Marie that makes those names such a great afterthought?

As a first name, Ann is stately, aristocratic and given to the adorable nickname “Annie.” Anne Boleyn, Anne Bancroft, Anne Hathaway.

Marie calls to mind the matrons of my youth – strong women who made good food and had permanent waves and could burst into song or a jitterbug at the drop of a fedora.

Interestingly, the first Female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is middle-named Patricia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s middle name is Diane and former Governor of Alaska and now Mouthpiece Around Town Sarah Palin‘s is Louise.

However, Katie Couric, Jessica Simpson, Hilary Swank, Jennifer Garner and punk rock singer Shirley Manson, among many, many, many others, have the middle name “Ann” or “Anne.” First Daughter Malia Obama is Malia Ann even though mom’s is the more exotic Michelle LaVaughn Obama.

Diva Patti LuPone’s middle name is Ann, although her first name is really a last name: Her great-grand-aunt was the celebrated 19th century opera singer Adelina Patti.

Marie seems to require a bit more ethnic specificity. In German and Latin American countries, both men and women often have the middle name “Marie” or “Maria” (among them the famed writer of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque), in part because of its sacred Catholic connotation.

Yet, in my desktop poll, conducted among my friends on Facebook, off Facebook and Down Under (which is to say, in cemeteries, not in Australia) the reigning middle name seems to be Ann, and its variations (An – yes, I have seen it – Ayn and Anne) seems to be, still and always the reigning middle name. It’s short, classy and goes with everything.

My own middle name?

It’s Gay. For a while I changed that pretty name to Grace. But now I love it again and use it happily.

For more on Jacquelyn Mitchard’s books and to read her blog, including this one in slightly different form, go to jackiemitchard.com.

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