Shortly after my son was born, I remember telling a friend that we chose his middle name, Robert, because it is my husband’s name. I told her that I would have liked to pass on my name, Angela, as my daughter’s middle name, but couldn’t get it to work. Her response was:
Some names just aren’t middle names.
But why is Angela not a middle name? Why are some names seen as first names only?
Rhythm is the answer. There are other reasons Angela is difficult middle name, such as the a-ending, but most names that don’t conventionally end up in the middle are usually passed over because of their rhythm.
Names that often end up in the middle, I call go-to middle names. Go-to middle names have three distinct patterns that complement most first names.
When picking a middle name, most parents unknowingly apply these patterns. Parents don’t generally apply the patterns as consistently with boys as with girls, but the patterns work for both genders.
Some of you might automatically feel boxed in with rules. I get you. To be clear, I don’t share these rules as rigid requirements but, rather, to educate parents about middle name rules they are already unknowingly following. Consider these rules guidelines that you can follow or break at will. Strategically breaking the rules with intention is how picking names becomes fun.
Strategically breaking the rules is how you can still use Angela in the middle without accepting the “Angela isn’t a middle name” default. But before you can defy convention, you need to recognize convention when you see it.
THE THREE DISTINCT PATTERNS FOUND IN (MOST) MIDDLE NAMES
Here are the three distinct rhythm patterns of conventional middle names:
- One syllable names. I call these “One Syllable Wonders”.
- Two syllable names with the stress on the second syllable. I call these “Fantastic Iambic Names”.
- Names with three or more syllables. I call these “Super Syllable Names“.
ONE SYLLABLE WONDERS
Anne, Grace, James and Rose all work well in the middle because they are one syllable. One syllable middle names are the easiest to work with. They flow well with almost any name, except maybe other one syllable names which can sometimes result in an abrupt, choppy flow.
With a few exceptions, one syllable wonders break up the rhythm and create an easy bridge to the last name. Here are some examples of one syllable middle names with first names of varying lengths.
FANTASTIC IAMBIC NAMES (APPLIES MOSTLY TO GIRLS)
Iambic names are two-syllable names with the stress on the second syllable. Marie, Michelle, and Nicole became go-to middle names because of their iambic rhythms. Finding boy equivalents is difficult, at least in English. More about that later.
Iambic names make good middle names because they create an ascent-descent rhythm. When I say names like Sarah Michelle or Emma Simone, I picture a bell curve. These combinations avoid the repetitious sing-song pattern of two first stress two-syllable names. Note the examples:
Exceptions To The “Fantastic Iambic” Rule
Now might be a good time to mention that some first/middle name combos will break the rules and still appeal to some people for unknown reasons.
One big exception to the fantastic iambic rule is boy names. As I mentioned before, there aren’t many iambic boy names. The only one I can think of is Emil, pronounced e-MEEL.
Maybe due to the shortage of iambic boy names, this rule doesn’t seem to apply as often with boys. One of the most popular middle names for boys, Alan, is a first stress two-syllable name (like Megan and Cora in the above examples) and breaks the “fantastic iambic” rule.
SUPER SYLLABLE NAMES
Elizabeth’s four syllables and non-a-ending made it a go-to middle name. But pairing super syllable names with first names takes some thought.
I wish I could say you could simply swap Elizabeth with any three or four syllable name and get good results, but that’s not always the case.
For one thing, there are few super syllable girl names that don’t end in A. With girl names, three syllable names ending in A don’t often work in the middle. This is because a first and middle name both ending in A could create a sing-song effect.
Most of the time, super syllable names ending in A work best with first names ending in a letter besides A. For example, Scarlett Susanna might work, but I suspect reader reviews on Scarlett Susanna would be mixed. Sometimes even with first names that don’t end in A, middle names ending in A are tricky.
What really makes a good super syllable middle name is one that has a stress on the second syllable, like Elizabeth. Some good examples are Felicity and Penelope. For example, with a first name like Morgan, any of these middle names would work:
I’m the last person to encourage strict adherence to a list of rules but, for those of us who sometimes struggle with name combos, these guidelines are good to have around.
This was revised from a post that originally ran on Upswing Baby Names.
Angela created Upswing Baby Names to help parents find that different but not too different name. She muses about names on their way in and on their way out in her book, The Top 22 in 2022, which she updates every year in May once the newest U.S. name rankings become available.