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:
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!