Middle Names in Your Family Tree

Posted March 10, 2016 by Amanda | 6 Comments

What’s in a middle name? Not everyone has one and its significance varies between different cultures. If you come across someone with a middle name during your genealogy research, a closer investigation may give you fascinating insights into family traditions, your ancestors or even clues to missing branches.

Middle Names in Your Family Tree

While the concept of a “middle name” has been around since the Middle Ages, it was not until 1835 that the phrase “middle name” first appeared in the Harvard University periodical Harvadiana. The three-name structure commonly found today consists of a given, middle and last name. Though the practice had been around for years, it wasn’t until World War I that middle names became “official” when the U.S. enlistment form included a separate space for them.

Middle name traditions

Middle names can offer clues into your family’s history and even family traditions. Some families may choose to pass on the same name over multiple generations. For example, music producer Quincy Jones’s middle name is “Delightt.” The name was passed down by his father, Quincy Delightt Jones, Sr., and in turn, passed down to his son Quincy Delight Jones, III.

Others choose to pass down the names of other relatives or the maiden names of female relatives. This is the case for actress Reese Witherspoon, whose middle name “Reese” is also her mother’s maiden name.

The stories behind middle names may also offer insight into the personal lives of your ancestors. For example, famous author Rudyard Kipling was born Joseph Rudyard Kipling. His parents had given him the middle name “Rudyard” after Rudyard Lake, which held significant meaning to them. They had met in 1863 and courted at Rudyard Lake in England, where they fell in love with the beauty of the area.

However, it’s important to be aware that sometimes the existence of a middle initial does not mean a middle name exists. Perhaps the most well known case is President Harry S. Truman, whose middle initial does not stand for anything. His parents chose the “S” initial to please both of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.

Researching with middle names

When researching your ancestors, be sure to look for middle names as a first name and vice versa. If someone used their middle name rather than their first name, it’s not uncommon to see the first name drop from documented records, such as in census records. Also, don’t be surprised to also see siblings with the same first names and different middle names!

What middle names are in your family tree? Does your family follow any middle name traditions?

Post written by Amanda

Amanda is the Marketing Communications Manager at Geni. If you need any assistance, she will be happy to help!

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  • Linda Hansen

    I have an ancestress with 2 middle names, which I believe hold a clue as to her mother’s parents, but have not been able to locate any information on them. The most horrible part of this is that women, until the early 20th century, weren’t held with much esteem. Maiden names were not included in birth records, or death records. It does help to be able to know that a middle name can be a maiden or family name (a ggg grandfather actually had the maiden name of his gg grandmother and used it as his given name), but middle names are not always indicative of a mother’s maiden name. It may go back further generations than just one.

  • Ashley

    Aw, bummer — I missed this post! We have an entire project dedicated to famous folks who go by their middle names: https://www.geni.com/projects/Middle-Namers/10138

    Amanda, can we use this post as the basis for our overview? We’ve had the project for years but never written up anything proper for it. With credit, obviously. :) Totally fine to say no!

    • geniblog


  • sheila

    In Scotland for example it used to be common practice to give as middle names to children the first and surnames of parents parents. eg if X and Y have a son then the son’s middle name was either the father’s first name OR the first and surname of the mother’s father. For a girl child the first and surname of the father’s mother was often used. For the second boy child the names of the father’s father were used. For the second girl child the names of the father’s mother were used. I have my father’s mother’s names as my two middle names

  • Mary

    I have a question about middle names. It seems they’re often a family name (i.e. Hillary). My grandfather’s brother was named Ollie Vebra McGarvey

    • geniblog

      Yes, middle names are often family names, so they may likely provide clues about other relatives in the family tree.