Why is it common in some cultures to go by a given name other than your first one?

In the Anglosphere, most people have more than one given name, typically two, and the second or middle name is usually not the one people use. Those who do typically do it for a specific reason (the main ones I can think of: they like their middle name more than their first name; one of their parents likes their middle name more than their first name and uses/used it with them; the individual was named after a parent and goes by their middle name to distinguish them from their parent; the individual belongs to an ethnic minority and uses an ethnic given name in their language/family/community and their “English” name in public; the person uses their first name with friends and family and their middle name professionally). Thus, while a certain percentage of people do go by their middle names, there’s usually a specific reason for it and most everyone else goes by their first name.

Yet there are countries where, as I understand, it is (or was) common for people to have a string of given names and for the one they go by to be any one of them, perhaps in some cases even for it to be common to use one which is not the first one. (In these countries, there might in fact not be a term equivalent to the English “middle name”). IMHO It makes sense that if you’re going to call your kid something, you might as well give it the place of honor and put it first, putting any “extra” names after it. It would interest me to know why there might be a different practice than that in some cultures.

I know that in some places, the reason may be religious, i.e. to give a religiously-chosen name a place of honor. Examples:

-In Muslim countries, a family might give all their sons the first name Mohammed (after the Prophet, of course - there is an Arab saying: if you have 1000 sons, name them all Mohammed) and then give them different second names by which to refer to different brothers.

-In Quebec, where the predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, it used to be customary, if not ubiquitous, that when a girl was born, she would be baptized with the first name “Marie”, after Jesus’ mother, and that when a boy was born, he would be baptized with the first name “Joseph” after Jesus’ earthly father. I imagine that this is behind the full names of the following two Canadian prime ministers: [Joseph Philippe] Pierre [Yves] Elliott Trudeau and [Joseph Jacques] Jean Chretien.

-Another Roman Catholic example: the full baptismal name of the composer that we know as “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” was entered in (Greco-)Latin as “Joan̅es Chrysost[omus] Wolfgangus Theophilus” in his baptismal register - in a letter upon his birth, his father gave it in German (or Latin and German) as “Joannes Chrisostomus, Wolfgang, Gottlieb”. The first two names are “John Chrysostom” in English, and were given because Mozart was born on that saint’s feast day. However, he doesn’t seem to have used them in everyday life (and he often rendered the “Gottlieb” part, which means “Lovegod”, in French (Amadè) or Italian (Amadeo), and eventually this turned into the form, apparently used more after his death, “Amadeus”, which is Latin. So the saint’s name of the day of his birth was put first, though it ended up disused.

But there are other cultures where I can’t find a reason for why many people may go by a given name other than the first one. Here are some examples:

-In France, it was at one time very common for people to be known by the LAST of their given names. So for example, the pioneer of French haute cuisine, [Georges] Auguste Escoffier. Is this again something related to Catholic naming practices? Even today, it’s common for French people to have a string of multiple given names (even if the family is not necessarily committed to a Catholic lifestyle) and the French national ID card, as I’ve read, makes it possible to mark the name you habitually go by.

-Other examples I know of are from Germanic countries in the broad sense. This example is from a work of fiction, but in the 1972 Swiss-Canadian television show “George” about an eponymous St. Bernard dog, set in Switzerland, one of the main characters, a boy named Freddie, once gets into a bit of a scrape with the law. The police officer investigating gives his full name, as I recall, as “Karl Friedrich Surname”. Assuming his parents called him Freddy from the beginning, is there a reason why they didn’t make Karl the second name?

-Another film example, but clearly one that hints at an underlying reality: In the Swedish film “Fanny and Alexandra”, two of the main characters, who at one point get married, are called Emelie Ekhdahl and Edvard Vergérus. At the wedding ceremony, they state their full names as “Olof Hendrik Edvard Vergérus” and “Elisabeth Emilie Josephine Ekdahl”. What could the obvious pattern represent? Surely it’s not the case that she disliked her parents calling her Elisabeth AND that he disliked his parents calling him Olof, and so both started using a middle name?

Thus, apart from the religious examples given above, are there specific reasons why it might be common in non-Anglo cultures not to be known by the first of your given names? Would there be a culture-specific reason for parents to use a second, third, etc. name when addressing their kids / not to put the name they are going to use for this purpose first in the string of given names? Or is it that people in these cultures habitually choose themselves which of their given names they would like to go by (or that the preference as to name of use typically develops later than at birth in the given culture?

Not that I’m aware of, and it’s very common for people in the US and Britain to go by their middle names as well- think of all the people with an initial and a name- F. Murray Abraham, G. Gordon Liddy, C. Montgomery Burns, etc… Or people who just go by their middle names- Will Ferrell, Ashton Kutcher, Paul McCartney, Bruce Willis, Rudyard Kipling, Ross Perot, etc…

I think it’s just a matter of personal choice pretty much everywhere; some people just DO NOT like their given first names.

There certainly are and have been many people who go by their middle names in the English-speaking world, but some of the examples with the first initial are rather old hand have to do with a practice common in the past among the up-and-coming sort to publicly initialize your first name but not your middle name, which was a surname that could have been an old family name (e.g. your mother’s name). For example, at the start of the comic Blondie, the name of her husband Dagwood’s filthy rich father was J. Bolling Bumstead. Do you really think his parents, his wife, etc. called him “Bolling” at home? More likely John, Jim or Jake. Similarly, the fox in Disney’s “Pinocchio”, who is portrayed as a used car or snake oil saleseman type, is called “Honest John”, but also (in some derived material) “J. Worthington Foulfellow”. Basically, it’s one monicker for one class of people, but another one for another. As a not unrelated example, US President Woodrow Wilson’s first name was Thomas and was referred to as Tommy by his parents. He apparently thought Woodrow more impressive for public life. Maybe for the same reason, an earlier president, Stephen Grover Cleveland, dropped his first name in adulthood.

You missed another one: you might put your parents name in the place of honor, or the name of your rich Aunt.

Also, some celebrities may go by their middle name as a stage name, but that may not necessarily be the name they are addressed by in private life. And then there is the example of monarchs - certainly British ones. They are normally given a string of names, some of which are more traditional choices for a regnal names and thus more likely to be selected when assuming the throne. Queen Victoria (who used her middle name herself, because she preferred it. Her first name was Alexandrina) named her son Albert Edward. He was known as “Bertie” to his family but reigned as Edward VII. His grandson, Albert Frederick Arthur George, was also known as “Bertie” to his family, but reigned as George VI.

That actually looks quite possible to me. However, an additional possible factor is that it’s very common for Christians to name children for living relatives; so the same family’s likely to have multiple people with the first name of Elisabeth or Olof or whatever. To reduce confusion, the younger ones often get called something other than the first name; and often stick with the version they’re used to even after their namesake has died.

That may be true- but all of the people I know who do it do it because they dislike their first name, and various jobs and government entities will not allow them to completely erase the first name - they will allow “Tony” to be “V.Anthony” in their email system/HR records etc, but not allow him to be “Anthony”

I have noticed that sometimes a person’s title is placed between the given name and the family name, rather than in the beginning as is most common. This seems particularly common with Roman Catholic cardinals, such as the current Timothy Cardinal Dolan.

I’m not sure why I’m mentioning it, but somehow this factoid seems relevant to the conversation. If you disagree, just ignore me and I’ll go away.

My father and I both had the same two names, as did his father. Dad was always known by his middle name.

Up until the 70s it was common in the UK for people to be addressed by their surname. I was ‘Smith’ at school and addressed as ‘Smith’ by my bosses at work, although my colleagues used my firstname. My Wife was a nurse and even though it was 10 years later, the same applied to her.

Anecdote alert:
An Irish Catholic family I knew growing up had 14 children; 8 boys and 6 girls. Each of the boys had the middle name of Christopher. The third boy went by Chris because his first name was the same as his grandfather’s. All 6 girls had the first name of Mary and they all went by their middle names except for Mary Alice.

Fanny and Alexandra was written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, and is semi-biographical. Ingmar’s full name was Ernst Ingmar Bergman. Based on Wikipedia Ingmar’s father was Erik Bergman, or Erik Henrik Fredrik Bergman. He had a brother who was a diplomat Dag Erik Bergman who went by Dag, and a sister who was a novelist Karin Ann Margareta Bergman, who’s listed as Margareta Bergman.

A contemporary Swede is the author of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, full name Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren, and looking at other associates of Ingmar I see no pattern. Seems to me that many Swedes at the time only had one first name and went by it, others had two or more, and it wasn’t necessarily the first one that stuck. From my experience as a Norwegian I’m also thinking this wasn’t a religious thing or a fixed custom, though it is entirely possible some choices were made later in life once you went to school and discovered there were too many with your first given name in your grade to stand out.

Maybe it’s specifically the Anglosphere that is slightly averse to using nicknames or titles? I still wouldn’t address a totally random stranger by his or her given name just because I happened to know it.

Confucius say, Confucius’s first name 丘 (Qiu) 也.
What was Julius Caesar’s given name?
The current president of the Philipines is called Rody, Digong, has a Cousin Icot, etc.

There was a Frenchman called Joseph Marie Charles Jacquard :slight_smile:


Roman males typically had three names:

-The “praenomen” - a given name. Gaius in this case.
-The “nomen” - the clan name. Julius in this case.
-The “cognomen” - a more personal surname that could be like a nickname or epithet. “Caesar” - this Caesar claimed it came from a Punic word for “elephant”.

The older people in my family who were named after a relative who was still living at the time often use their middle name.

An uncle is named in the order <parent’s preference> because reversing the order of the given names would result in initials that spelt an innocuous English word. Apparently my grandparents were so strongly against initials that spell words that they cursed him to a lifetime of explaining his first name is really his middle name instead.

My great grandfather had a very common first name, up there with, say, John. My grandfather and uncle were both given the same first name and went by their middle names. My cousin was also given the same first name and went by that. Apparently, his wife nixed the tradition and their sons were given different names. My parents gave me the same first name and faced years of complaints that they had tried to steal some sort of birthright.

My impression is that going by a nickname is very common in the English-speaking world, much more so than in other societies. There are American politicians called Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, and so on, and English-speaking Canadian politicians called Doug Ford, Greg Selinger, Jack Layton, Bob Rae, etc. And it’s not even a matter of presenting a populist image, as evidenced by say Bob Rae who’s clearly more of an intellectual type. The only French-speaking Canadian politicians who go by a nickname are active in mainly English-speaking parts of the country, for example the city councillor for St. Boniface (in Winnipeg), Matt Allard. But otherwise the premier of Quebec isn’t called Frank Legault, his predecessor wasn’t called Phil Couillard, and I remember reading a story about former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord purposefully choosing to go by that name instead of Bernie because of his francophone heritage. Similarly, I’m not aware of French politicians going by a nickname either, unless you count Marine Le Pen whose name is actually Marion Perrine Le Pen, but that’s not exactly a typical nickname either.

I am the fourth generation to have the exact same name. so, because my father and I shared the same name, to avoid confusion, I go by my middle name.

Human naming practice is so variable among cultures that your question is almost meaningless.

For instance, Japanese often go by given name in moderately familiar settings (in a peer group, for instance), but often with an honorific suffix (-san, typically) when used as address.

In general, addressing or referring by given personal name is only permissible in a peer or socially-downward direction (your boss may address you by given name, but don’t expect to be able to do the reverse).

And the final wrinkle: in Japanese (and many other cultures worldwide), your first name is your family name, not your personal given name.

Not to mention cultures where people have only one name + a nickname, like medieval Saxon, Norman, Nordic, and Germanic cultures.

Nicknames were not inherited.

Sweyn Forkbeard
Harald Bluetooth
Olaf Haraldsson (son of Harald Bluetooth)
Gytha Thorkelsdóttir (daughter of Thorgil / Thorkel)
Cnut the Great (knot)
Harthacnut (hard-knot, son of Cnut)

Edmund Ironside
Harold Harefoot
Edward the Confessor
Harold Godwinson (his father was Godwin)

William Longsword
Robert the Good
Robert the Magnificent
William the Conqueror (or the Bastard, depending how you felt about him)
William Rufus (redhead)
Henry Beauclerc (good clerk)
Robert Curthose (short stockings)

Often place names were tacked on to the single name: xxx of yyy e.g. John of Northhampton

Then there are Scottish names up to the early 19th century, which are complicated and would need a long post on their own.