Things you wouldn’t know: The thing about middle names

I started this series “Things you wouldn’t know” a while back, because as an expat, living in a different country away from home, you encounter a whole lot of things that are just different from what you’re used to. Some things are significant, others barely noticeable. After 10+ years, I am pretty much used to most things in the US and I hardly ever bring up when something is different from back home. Every once in a while though, you strike up a conversation and while you’re talking about something, you realize that your counterpart is giving you this strange look of non-comprehension. You can find the archives here.

Last week, Doni and I had the following exchange on  Twitter:

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An interesting conversation ensued after that because as it stands, in the USA it is very common to have (a) middle name(s). In fact, I don’t think I know anybody (you?) who doesn’t have a middle name. Whenever I say that I don’t have a middle name, people are surprised (as was Doni).

So, I thought it would be a good idea to shed some little light on the differences between middle names here and in Germany, because technically there is no such thing as middle names in Germany. Well, I am not saying there aren’t any names that are placed between the given name and surname  in Germany at all, because there are, but it all works a little bit differently.

Most European countries (as far as I know) use middle names, which are, however, often referred to as second (or third) given names followed by the surname. In Germany, first, second and third names are legally equivalent, therefore the parents get to decide which name the child actually goes by. Other than in the US, it’s not common practice to use the surname of a relative as a middle name in Germany, in fact, using a surname (e.g. the mother’s or grandmother’s maiden name) is not even allowed, unless that name is also officially accepted as a first name. (I’ll explain that later.)

My Dad, for example, has the same three given names as his father (and his grandfather and great-grandfather). He goes by his first name. My Mom only has a first and second name and also goes by her first name. My aunt, however, has a first and second name and goes by her second name. Ah!
In my parents’ generation, those second (and third) forenames were traditionally picked from the names of relatives (this is, however, not necessarily true anymore).

In the 70’s (when I was born – spoiler-alert!) middle names seemed to have gone out of style a bit. My sister, myself and many of my friends do not have second (or third for that matter) names at all (although some do!). Both, my niece and nephew, also don’t have middle names, although the practice of giving more than one name seems to have come back in recent years.

In general, naming laws in Germany are pretty strict. If you chose a name for your child that is considered unisex (e.g. Robin or Kim), at least one additional, unambiguous name must be chosen. I don’t know if they keep a list at the Standesamt (German civil registration office), but you also can’t just choose just any name for your child (as you can here). If the name is not accepted as a legal first name or if it is a name that is likely to expose your child to ridicule or bullying, you’ll be prohibited to use it. You also can’t use names that are surnames as either first or second names. (J’s middle name – which is a compound word (!) made up of both his grandmothers maiden names – would have been so not acceptable!).
Foreign names are generally allowed if you can establish that the name is actually used somewhere else in the world.

When I got married, I thought about keeping my maiden name as a middle name. I have a very (!) common German surname and I was not particularly (but a little bit!) attached to it and I liked the idea of having a middle name and be able to keep my cultural heritage. However, since my maiden name is not accepted as a proper first name, the German Standesamt didn’t allow it. Stupid, ey?
I could have decided to keep a hyphened “double-surname”, but a) my maiden name in combination with J’s surname just didn’t sound good (two one-syllable words) and b) I really didn’t want the hassle of a double-name.

I also could have decided to have two different legal documents – a California ID with my maiden name as my middle name and a German ID without it. But I feared that that would make things unnecessarily complicated.

So there you have it. It’s always interesting to learn about different countries, cultures and traditions, am I right? The more you know.

Share your middle (or second) name(s) in the comments! Or leave any questions that you still might have!

  1. This is so interesting! My mother- who is Dutch- doesn’t have a middle name either because in her area of Netherlands, everyone has a very Catholic first name and then a middle– so she was born Mary Patricia, and her family called her Mary Pat. But when she came to the US in her teens, no one called her Mary Pat- they all called her Mary, so when she was 18 and became a citizen here, she dropped the Mary and just goes by Patricia now!

  2. Great post which will spawn a discussion with my boyfriend, a German expat from Munchen. I’m American and adopted and my parents gave my brother and I, also adopted – different family, their first names as our middle names, respectively. My mom, however, has a surname from somewhere in the family as her middle name. My bf actually has two middle names but goes by his first. He was also born in the 70’s. So interesting!

  3. I noticed that too, when I lived in California. People looked at me surprised, when I didn’t fill out the middle name part in documents.

    A little fun fact: My grandpas name was Friedrich Maria Wenzel Liebscher. Friedrich was his given name. Maria was the name of his godmother and Wenzel his godfather. Apparently in catholic church it was common to give the child, that will be baptized, the godparents names as second and third name . So I was named after my granddad. I think that’s kinda cool! :D

  4. My middle name is Michelle. When I was growing up, I only knew one person without a middle name… and he was from England! Hehe. I do know a few people who use their middle names as their first names though, especially when a first name is a family name (multiples Johns or Roberts), but it’s definitely not terribly common. I think it’s so weird that a country could keep you from naming your child something. I mean, some names are super weird, but that just seems a little overly controlling, ya know? That definitely wouldn’t fly here in the good ole US of A! ;)

  5. My middle name is Elizabeth, after my aunt who was at the hospital with my mom when I was born. What ALSO throws a wrench into names here are confirmation names – I’m not sure how many people use them after their actual confirmation, but I know most people remember them if confirmation is part of their religious upbringing. I chose Mary for my confirmation name but have literally never used it.

    I loved this whole education on middle names! :)

  6. So complicated! Britain is rather like the US; you can name your child pretty much whatever you want I believe. I do think they should enforce a similar sort of ‘rule’ about silly names i.e. ones that will open up your child to ridicule. I also dislike that parents choose unique spellings that are just ridiculous. But that’s another story.

    I would say most people I know have a middle name, but it is completely personal preference whether to use or even share it. I do use mine (Louise) when I want to distinguish myself or on important documents. For example, when putting my name on academic research papers.

    A very interesting post San!

  7. This is so interesting! I am pretty obsessed with names in general, so I always love to know people’s full names. My middle name is Rose, and Joe’s is Lee, and I’ve toyed with the idea of combining those as a middle name for our future-hypothetical daughter. (Like Rosalee or something.)

  8. I feel like I need a diagram for this post. But it is probably just the headache getting in the way. Haha! My Grandma is Gisela Regina Martha (last name), So I guess it really went out of style between the 30s and 70s!!! If you were able to give yourself a middle name, what would it be? My middle is Marie (apparently the most common.)

  9. ‘Cause my moms name is Antje-Kathleen Else Elly she decided that neither my brother nor I should have middle names. By brother was born in 1964 and mom decided to name him Chris. Holy Moly, she really had to fight for that name (but she won!). Christian or Christoph/er wouldn’t have been a problem but the short way….. too “fancy” for the Germany bureaucracy.

  10. wow, so very interesting! i think in latin america the mom’s maiden name is commonly used as a middle name. my middle name isn’t officially on my birth certificate, but it’s my chinese name, so similar to having a second name. :)

    since it’s not on the birth certificate, i rarely use it. i want most of my docs to match.

  11. This is so very interesting (especially being half-German and have a pretty strong German last name – which I hate, I’m sorry, but nobody can pronounce it! – so I have a strong tie to that culture!) to read. My middle name is Marie and just about everyone I know has a middle name. I think I may have met a handful of people who didn’t have a middle name but they, for the most part, were not born in the USA.

    It’s so interesting that they can reject a name. Ha… just IMAGINE the uproar here if that would happen. (Especially for some of the funky names celebrities give their kids!) That’s really interesting that they have that standard in place.

    On the other hand, you have the Spanish who usually have looooong names, haha. My sister-in-law, who is Puerto Rican, has a five-word name (her first name, middle name, mother’s surname, father’s surname, married surname. EEK!).

    Such an interesting post topic! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Oh this is interesting. One of my friends was born in the Czech Republic and she doesn’t have a middle name either. However, her siblings were born in the US and her parents gave them both middle names, perhaps a location/cultural thing after all?

    As for me, my middle name is April. I believe because it’s the month I was born in? I’ve never really thought it was much else, but I do adore it.

  13. I have a Canadian friend who lives in Germany and I remember her telling me about all the trouble she had naming her two boys because what would be acceptable in Canada wasn’t in Germany. I think the one she had the most trouble with was “Tavis” because she had to prove that it WAS a name!

    My middle name is Elizabeth!

    In my family it’s tradition to give the firstborn two middle names, so Topher’s full name is Kristopher Reuben Nathan [last name] – which is a bit of a mouthful. In Nathan’s family it’s tradition to use the dad’s name as the middle name, so we included both traditions :)

  14. I love when you do German vs. America posts. Always so fascinating. I had no idea that choosing names were so strict in Germany. My middle name is Beth. In Judaism, it is customary to name either first or middle name after a deceased family member. My middle name is after Benjamin, my mother’s grandfather.

  15. This is something I’ve wondered lots about, so thank for sharing it. My middle name is Christine, but my first and last name literally mean Earth Cat, which seems to surprise absolutely no one.

  16. Ha, how come I never read this post… I guess it was before I our time. Funny thing my name actually had be registered here in Germany. My mom was in the hospital/routine check up and there was a lady wanting to name her daughter Tobia. Which was prohibited as it was not registered. She had to end up naming her Tabea. So my mom made my dad go register and when she said a couple weeks later how they wanted to name me the official said. oh not possible. But they made him double check. But its true I needed a name to identify my gender. I wonder if that is till a things with the new gender roles

    1. I just went back through my emails and it was indeed “before our time”… I posted this in February, we started emailing in June 2014 :)

      I am not surprised to hear that your name was considered unusual (I don’t know any other Tobia), although it seems pretty obvious to me that it’s just the female version of Tobias. I am glad your mom put her foot down and had your dad register the name after you were born. It’s unique!

  17. Interesting topic, I had no idea. The idea of having to get permission on the name of your child is so alien to me, I can’t really imagine it. I now have 2 middle names, I guess. I have the one I was born with, and my maiden name. Legally I guess my middle name is my maiden name, that is what is on my Social Security card and my Driver’s License. But if someone were to ask me what my middle name is, I would give the other one. Silly and confusing, right?

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