The phrase “middle name” first appeared in an 1835 Harvard University periodical called Harvardiana, but the practice dates back much further.
In ancient Rome, having multiple names was an honor usually bestowed upon the most important people—like Gaius Julius Caesar. The fad died out only to pick back up again in Western cultures in the 1700s, when aristocrats started giving their children lavishly long names to indicate their place in society. Similarly, lengthy Spanish and Arabic names adopt paternal or maternal names from previous generations to trace the individual’s family tree. (In other cultures, like Chinese, there are traditionally no middle names.)
The three-name structure used today began in the Middle Ages when Europeans were torn between giving their child a saint’s name or a common family name. The practice of giving three names eventually resolved the problem with a formula: given name first, baptismal name second, surname third. It branched to America as immigrants arrived: Adopting a trio of labels became a way of aspiring to a higher social class. Nonreligious middle names—often maternal maiden names—gradually became the norm, and by the Civil War, it was customary to name your child whatever you liked. Middle names had started to become more or less official by World War I, when the U.S. enlistment form became the first official government document to include space for them.