Having a middle name is often a way of paying a tiny tribute to a beloved relative or maintaining a family tradition that will keep grandparents happy. If there are two (or more) middle names, these traditional names can be incorporated with greater ease, and when it comes to family traditions, the Brits are past masters of the form.
Take the Royal Family: Queen Elizabeth II is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary; Prince Charles is Charles Philip Arthur George; Princess Anne is Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise; Prince Andrew is Andrew Albert Christian Edward and Prince Edward is Edward Antony Richard Louis. And it resonates down the generations too; Prince William is William Arthur Philip Louis; Princess Eugenie is Eugenie Victoria Helena and so on…
And as with the naming of Princess Charlotte, there may be a name that references one lineage of the family (in this case Elizabeth, for the Queen) and a name that acknowledges another (Diana, for Princess Charlotte’s grandmother). And despite this being a relatively common occurrence that goes back generations in families across mainland Europe, we choose this example also because it’s a practice that is often considered to have come from privilege. It’s what posh people do.
So it should come as no surprise that British stars from a certain background should have been given the extra name, like Hugh John Mungo Grant or Rosamund Mary Ellen Pike. And sometimes more, as in Dominic Gerald Francis Eagleton West or even Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.
(Note: this does not mean that Martin John Christopher Freeman or Edward Maurice Charles Marsan are necessarily posh.)
There again, there are all sorts of reasons to add extra middle names that have nothing to do with class. Adopted children whose names have had to be changed for safety reasons may keep their original first name as a middle name, but see it relegated to third place after their new first name and a second middle name, one that is particular to their new family. That’s also about maintaining links to separate lineages, but for less imperious reasons.
It’s also worth noting that, in a regal tradition that venerates male heirs, women would historically take on their husband’s surname and may have one of their middle names replaced with their maiden name upon marriage. This would signify transfer of family allegiance into the new, and hopefully happy, union.
Of course, there’s nothing overwhelmingly British about any of this, and there are examples of this sort of naming convention all over the world, from a Brit of German ancestry like J. R. R. Tolkien to America’s own George H. W. Bush. There are also people who answer to one of their multiple middle names instead of their first name; James Hugh Calum Laurie (or just Hugh Laurie to you and me) for one.
It’s also quite common to have extra surnames thrown in there to avoid all of the trouble of double-barreling the actual surname, as in Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch‘s case. This is for purely pragmatic purposes; all the family information is there somewhere, but it doesn’t take whole minutes to complete an autograph.
Mind you, you can take this too far, as the parents of Paula St. John Lawrence Lawler Byrne Strong Yeats Stevenson Callaghan Hunt Milne Smith Thompson Shankley Bennett Paisley O’Sullivan definitely did in 1966, when they gave their daughter the surnames of the entire 1963-4 Liverpool football team—plus their manager and trainers—as middle names.
And before you ask, no that is NOT posh.
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