Baby Naming Issue: When Is a Double Name One Name, and When Is it Two? - Mood Baby


Baby Naming Issue: When Is a Double Name One Name, and When Is it Two?

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Posted on: September 16, 2020

Hi Swistle,

I was recently double names and thought this might be the sort of thing your readers would care about.

Here is the question: When do two names become one name? Are names like “Mary Kate”, “Mary Elizabeth”, “Mary Jane” one name or two names? If your middle name is something like “Mary Kate”, do you tell people you have two names or one middle name? Do hyphens matter? What do you do about initials if you do have two names that are actually one name?

My middle name is the middle example and I always just say I have one middle name and write both into any forms that request a middle name (no hyphens). I’m in Canada so both middle names show up on official documents, and sometimes my initials are put as ME instead of just M. I think this really depends on how your local government chooses to input information and the fact I like the names as a set contributes to how I characterize them.

I can also see the flip side of this dispute where without the hyphen, two names are just… two names. Obviously preference has a lot to do with it.

I think where the dividing line is for me is a combination of:

1) Is this double name already an accepted single name (i.e. Mary Something)?
2) Do the names bounce together well? (i.e. Taylor Grace, Samantha Jo, Rebecca Anne all sound like “one name”)
3) Is the name clearly meant to be two names? (i.e. is the second middle name a mother’s birth name relegated to the second middle name spot? do the names totally clash?)

Which brings me around to the idea of how do two single names turn into a known “one name” situation?

These these types of things keep me up at night at I’m hoping other people are also in this boat.



I almost skipped this one because at first it seemed too easy: it’s two names (two initials) if they are not connected (Mary Kate) and one name (one initial) if they are (Mary-Kate, MaryKate). A space is how we show that two names are separate; a hyphen or a visibly-deleted space is how we show our intent that the the two names be treated as one name. But then almost right away I thought of an example that didn’t fit, which led me to a lot of other examples I wasn’t sure about, and before I knew it I was tempted to skip it because it was too hard! Well, this is what makes for interesting discussions!

Here was the first example I thought of: I know someone named Mary Ann, and her name is Mary Ann to the extent that it would be jarringly wrong to call her Mary; but/and if she’s writing her name as an initial and a surname she writes M. Surname: her name is Mary Ann, one name. But also two. How does that work with my first paragraph? Furthermore, when she signs an email informally, without her surname, she sometimes writes “M.A.” to represent a quick writing of her first name. Even more confusing!

And what about surnames? My understanding is that many people with a hyphenated surname use the first initial of the whole thing: Koning-Dekker is represented by the initial K. But one of the teachers in our school has a hyphenated surname, and she has the kids call her Mrs. K-D. That doesn’t mean she’d necessarily put it that way on a form (as K.D.? K.-D.?), but it makes me wonder, and makes me think the answer to this question is more complicated than I thought.

I think part of the answer is that the name’s position makes a difference: a two-part first name is different than a two-part middle name is different than a two-part surname. My kids each have two middle names, and those are definitely two names, and those are definitely two initials; if a form only lets us use one initial, we use the first initial, but that doesn’t mean the two names are or function as one: it is the form that is wrong. (I have two middle names and default to my second initial.) But that doesn’t mean it’s the same with first names or surnames, and in fact we already have several examples where it’s not or it might not be.

You know what I think it probably boils down to in the end is (1) the original intent of the name(s) (i.e., how the namer thought of the name(s) when giving them) and (2) how the named person feels about the name(s). My acquaintance Mary Ann feels like she has ONE name that happens to have a space as one of the letters. She has ONE first initial (except when signing just M.A., interestingly—I wonder if she does that to help avoid being called Mary?). But another Mary Ann might feel she has TWO names, and might write her first-name initials as M.A. always. Same with surnames: some people with two surnames, hyphenated or not, might write them as two initials, some as one.

I think you’re right that it matters if, say, one middle name is the other parent’s surname: it makes it clear that the name stands alone in a sense, and wasn’t necessarily meant to combine with the other middle name, or to be used to summon the child in for dinner. This also seems like it could factor into double surnames: even when hyphenated, the parents might not want it considered “one name” per se, if it was done that way because it was important to include both names. Or they might! Perhaps the whole family took that hyphenated surname on purpose to make One New Family Name! It’s complicated, is what I’m saying.

And I think you’re right to point out that, for example, Mary _____ names have their own established usage. If I change my example from my acquaintance Mary Ann, to, say Emma Jo, suddenly it seems even more difficult to figure out.

I wonder, too, if it matters when a name already exists in one- and two-name options. Mary Ann and also Marianne and also Maryann, for example. Does that make us feel more as if “Mary Ann” can be one name? For me, I think it does—while simultaneously making me more open to the idea of it as two! It’s more like that usage makes me understand it can be either way.

And the particular naming culture of a local area is going to make a difference. If a ton of kids are going around named John Michael as a first name, it would likely lead to a feeling of that being “a first name”—i.e., one name. Or what about an area where most kids are called by their first + middle? If every parent is yelling out the door “SOPHIA JO, CHARLOTTE ROSE, COME IN FOR DINNER,” will that lead to the feeling that hearing two names is still hearing two names, rather than hearing one double first name?

It seems to me that the easiest and most straightforward examples are the hyphenated or deleted-space names in the first or middle position (rather than in the surname position, where there are societal/symbolic complications): Emma-Jo Catherine Dekker, or EmmaJo Catherine Dekker, or Catherine Emma-Jo Dekker, or Catherine EmmaJo Dekker. In all of those examples, it seems as if intent pairs well with feeling. I would guess that MOST people named Emma-Jo would think of that as one name with one initial, and that MOST people with the middle name Emma-Jo would think the same. Things cross back into complicated if, for example, Emma-Jo ends up going by E.J. as a nickname. Well! This is why I think it boils down to namer’s intent + namee’s feeling, and there isn’t a way to draw a firm solid line, which is also pleasing because it means there isn’t a specific rule that everyone needs to follow.

Okay, I am looking over the tangled mess of this answer and I don’t have the oomph to tidy it up. Let’s see what others think about when it’s ONE name and when it is TWO.

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