Stuck in a middle name muddle
It addles the mind to think that for 500 years, people have been tossing around the question: ‘What’s in a name?’ when the real poser ought to be ‘What’s in a middle name?’. Or as the truly luckless have it — middle names in tongue-taxing multiples, strung together in a commemorative genealogy for which no line on a government form is generous enough!
Us, Catholics, chiefly e mploy t he middle name/s to memorialise deceased relatives and to placate living ones. It means much to the ancient aunt in a rocking chair on her Goan-Portuguese porch, or a feuding brother to whom the olive branch of peaceful property division is held out, to have their names extending into the future — as if by tacking it to some unsuspecting child’s name, they too will march metaphysically into the exciting times of Gen X/Y/Z. Most of the time, I suspect, they’re just pleased to be counted. So you’ll have Josephine Geraldine Jemma Visitacion Purificacion Perpetua Gomes, in a flowing tribute to several aunts, grandaunts and pet cousins.
Some people have so many middle names, you’d think their parents were training them for a lifetime of memory games. A relative of mine has six! I bet he forgot five of them by the time he was 30.
I’ve never had occasion to berate this pointless interposition, this useless word wedge, this impotent interpolation — save the odd, private lamentation over the middle name ‘Ronha’, which I was afraid people would interpret as doleful — until recently when I sought to enrol my children in a school.
Here’s how the crisis unfolded…
The birth certificate of my children, issued by the municipal corporation of Mumbai, has the mother’s full name down as: first name, husband’s name, surname; and the father’s as: first name, father’s first name, surname. If this patronymic devilry was the work of a culturally-biased municipality or some twisted arm of our family, I cannot tell.
But of course apart from these government-given middle names, my husband and I have other, Christian middle names bestowed at baptism and these, stamped on other official documents, conflict with those on our children’s birth certificates. And then of course, I took my maiden surname as my middle name after marriage. The school politely asked us to reconcile our multiple identities and then reapply.
(An aside: my father-in-law — who owns a four-string fretboard of names — goes popularly by his second name, which has led to other kinds of hairpulling! Thank God it was his first and not the second name we remembered to pin to the birth certificates.)
All this led my husband and I to wonder if we shouldn’t nix our middle names altogether. They had caused us nothing but tears (I literally broke down at a perverse passport office); uneven teeth from all that gritting; and the equivalent of one car EMI in school admission forms.
Had we been ancient Roman slaves, I thought, we would have never had these troubles. They had all of one name. Unsurprisingly, the upper crust had three — a nomenclatural trifecta called Tria Nomina to double-glaze their social status. This included the praenomen or personal name given by parents, the nomen or clan name, and the cognomen, a name indicating family branch, place of origin, trade, accomplishment, or physical feature, like Tacitus to mean taciturn or silent, Caesar to mean luxuriant hair.
Around the Enlightenment, another bunch of rich blokes out West decided the longer the name the greater the social standing, and added the names of saints and relatives to the name of the child, to flatter the inhabitants of both home and heaven. What good that did anyone is anyone’s guess!
No one remembers the alphabet soup between the first and last names anyway. Here’s proof. The man presently