Where Did All the Middle Initials Go? To the Intellectuals.

Illustration for article titled Where Did All the Middle Initials Go? To the Intellectuals.

Phillip K. Dick. Alfred E. Neuman. Ulysses S. Grant. These are all people whose names are inseparable from their middle initials. But Bruce Feiler of The New York Times has a evidence that middle initialism is on the decline. Unless you want to be perceived as smart. In that case, middle initial away.


On a personal note, I use my middle initial as a tribute to my mother's side of the family. I have my father's last name and a first name my mother picked from a western fictional character. But my middle name is the only indication of my mother's Japanese ancestry and my name's really long, so I use my middle initial whenever I can. But now I'm discovering that it may come off as either classist or intellectual.

In "They're Dropping Like Middle Initials," Feiler examines the decline using several metrics: statistics, anecdotal evidence, and scientific studies.

One of Feiler's most interesting bits of research was a look at Congressional rosters, which supported the downward trend:

I picked three years. In 1900, 84 percent of Congress — that's senators and representatives — used a middle initial. By 1970, the number had dipped to 76 percent. Today, it's 38 percent.

The same trend was found in the Pulitzer Prize winners for journalism writing.

In terms of anecdotes, Feiler mentions that the Barack Obama Foundation eliminated his middle initial from their name and also turns to fellow New York Times writer Nicholas Kristoff, who eliminated his middle initial at the start of this year, explaining:

The middle initial adds a bit of authority and gravitas, and when you're a 25-year-old Times reporter covering global economics and hoping to be taken seriously, that's very welcome.

... I think in the Internet age, the middle initial conveys a formality that is a bit of a barrier to our audience. It feels a bit ostentatious, even priggish. If my aim in my 20's was gravitas, now I want to reach people and connect with them, and I wonder if the stuffiness of the middle initial isn't a little off-putting


Is there anything in the modern day that can't be traced to the Internet?

And then there are the studies. Published this fall, "The impact of middle names: Middle name initials enhance evaluations of intellectual performance" did a series of seven studies into the "the middle initials effect." That is, how middle initials "affect the perception of people's intellectual performance, their intellectual capacity, and correlates of these qualities."


The first study asked students to rate how well written an extract was, with the name of the author having no middle initial, one initial, two, or three. There was a significant jump in perceived quality between the zero initials and the presence of one. This trend continued throughout the seven studies, no matter how much was manipulated. The researchers concluded:

Authors with middle initials compared with authors with no (or less) middle initials were perceived to be better writers (Studies 1 and 5). In addition, people with names that included middle initials were expected to perform better in an intellectual—but not athletic—competition (Studies 3 and 6) and were anticipated to be more knowledgeable and to have a higher level of education (Study 7). In addition, a similar pattern of results was obtained on perceived status (Studies 2 and 4), which was identified to mediate the middle initials effects (Studies 5–7).

... In sum, the studies demonstrate the existence of the proposed middle initials effect. We found that higher perceived status, expected and perceived intellectual capacity, and performance were attributed to people with middle initials compared with people without middle initials. In addition, we found that "more middle initials are better than few," that is, the attributions of status and intellect increased with the amount of middle initials in names. Note, we used different procedures in examining the middle initials effect, and most importantly, the effect seems powerful, as it can be detected for complex real-life decisions such as those about the author list of academic journal publications.


But it's not just the aspiring intellectual that benefits from a middle initial. Frank Nuessel, a professor at the University of Louisville and the editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics, told Feiler that women will also use middle initials:

Instead of writing Ann Louise Smith, they'll put A. L. Smith, so the person who sees the letter or email doesn't know it's a man or woman and doesn't make preconceived notions on gender.


Which isn't exactly using or omitting a middle initial as it is masking a first name. It seems to be a different phenomena than a woman choosing between "Ann L. Smith" and "Ann Smith." So, Nuessel returns to the idea of status and that middle initials are indicators of class. "Most millennials in particular tend to want to be more egalitarian," he said, "and the use of a middle initial would be perceived to be classist."

That's one spin. It's also very tempting to say that the trend against middle initials is some sort of reflection of anti-intellectualism. Or it could just be that, with names themselves getting more and more unique, middle initials are needed less to distinguish one "John Smith" from another. Whatever it is, they're on the way out.


h/t Meggie O'Dell



"On a personal note, I use my middle initial as a tribute to my mother's side of the family." Oh come on, you use it because it looks great on a Law Review masthead, don't you? I have two middle names, and you'll be goddamn damned if I'm not using both of them. I look 1000% more lawyerly.