Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg. George Herbert Walker Bush. Hugh John Mungo Grant. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell. Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland. What do these names have in common? They all belong to famous people, and also, they are longer than they should be.
Historically, Western naming conventions dictated that the richer and more powerful you were, the more names you got. According to Ancestry.com, “Traditionally, the British upper class has used multiple names to indicate family connections, even going so far as changing surnames to reflect these bonds.” (Please do not sign up for Ancestry.com.) If you were a poor-o in the 1700s, rather than getting some name like Lord Winston Fallowsworth Swimshire Addlebrough III or whatever, you only got two names, three if your family was religious. I like to think that the poorest among these poor souls probably got one name. Maybe they were all named “Gurp.”
As you can see from Pete Buttigieg, Hugh Grant, Billie Eilish, et al., the tradition of the upper classes loading their kids up with names extends to this day. Buttigieg’s father was a respected scholar of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (one middle name). Kiefer Sutherland is the son of Donald Sutherland, and therefore Hollywood nobility, while Hugh Grant is literal British nobility. I am not saying that having multiple middle names made these people rich and famous instead of just regular-old rich, but I am saying that I couldn’t find any non-rich-and-famous people when I googled “people with multiple middle names” a few minutes ago. Really makes you think.
In a 2013 article for the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova wrote about the social phenomenon of “name-signaling” — essentially the implicit messages we send through our names, these labels for ourselves we don’t even choose, without realizing it:
In a study of children in a Florida school district, conducted between 1994 and 2001, the economist David Figlio demonstrated that a child’s name influenced how he or she was treated by the teacher, and that differential treatment, in turn, translated to test scores. Figlio isolated the effects of the students’ names by comparing siblings — same background, different names. Children with names that were linked to low socioeconomic status or being black [...] were met with lower teacher expectations.
While the study Konnikova discussed ultimately probably dealt with how public school teachers in Florida from 1994 to 2001 were apparently kind of racist, Konnikova writes that the name-signaling effect can also play into our biases about which mediocre people we should elevate. “We see a name, implicitly associate different characteristics with it, and use that association, however unknowingly, to make unrelated judgments about the competence and suitability of its bearer.”
Though our middle names are often the most private parts of our names as a whole (the exception being people who use their middle names as their first name), there is clearly something going on here. And to be clear, I am not faulting people who have two middle names for simply having them. They did not choose that life for themselves; their parents did. But giving your kid multiple middle names is certainly indicative of… Something. A set of attitudes about your own place in the world and the place you expect your kid to occupy? That you’re trying to prove to other rich people that you’re not just regular-rich but old-money rich? Seems like a lot to saddle a kid with, y’know?
Besides the burden of expectations, it seems cruel to give your kid a long-ass name. There’s no way that Kiefer Sutherland had memorized all of “Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland” until he was at least, like 12. What kind of effect did that have on him as a kid? I’m mostly joking, but children, especially the rich children like the ones your rich child will interact with, can be merciless, and if you give your kid a name that reads like an entire census roll, you’re basically asking them to get bullied until their peers develop a conscience.
For some perspective on the effects of having a double-middle name, I turned to my coworker Elias Rothblatt, whose full legal name is Elias Magic Kahn Rothblatt. Unlike the celebrities I’ve discussed in this story, Elias got his name not because of familial legacy but from parental compromise: his mom’s last name is Kahn; his dad is really into Magic Johnson to the point that he wanted to name him Magic. “My mom was like, ‘No way,’ so they did some negotiation,” he told me. To Elias, the hardest part of having two middle names is, “I never know when I’m going to fail some form of identity verification” on a computer, where he’s dealt with software programmed to look for a single middle name. Elias Magic Rothblatt? Elias Kahn Rothblatt? The whole thing? Who is to say?
If we want to shake off the burdens of the past and build a better world for all, we might have to do something about middle names. The Outline’s Shuja Haider, who has no given middle name, told me an anecdote that might offer an elegant solution to this whole kerfuffle. “You know how when we were growing up they were just starting to incorporate computers into schools?” he asked. “When they gave us accounts and logins and stuff there was always a field for a middle name, and it would just autofill as ‘X’ for me. I thought this was embarrassing and I resented not having a middle name, until I heard of Malcolm X. So now, I always use ‘X.’” He continued, “Maybe everyone should just have to use X.”