October 23, 2017

Oh, you use just a middle initial? What!?

By John Guy LaPlante

That doesn’t surprise me. Most Americans get along with a middle initial though they have a full middle name. A puny initial has become so common that I’m convinced it’s now unAmerican to flash a middle name. No, no, don’t think I’m crazy.

Well, I ‘m a rare one. I have a middle name and I use it every day, every time. No initial for me! You can see that in my byline up above.

Sometimes a daring soul confronts me and says, “John, how come you use your middle name?”

“Simple,” I tell them. “My parents gave me a middle name, not a middle initial.” Sometimes I feel they think I’m an ostentatious big shot or something. I’m anything but.

Truth is, there is more to that simple reply of mine, and I’ll explain in a minute.

I said it is unAmerican. Sure, I’ll explain. As some of you know, I have piled up a lot of miles traveling here and there in the world. Have dipped into a wide range of cultures. It’s common for people to have a string of three names. And nowhere outside the U.S. have I seen people abbreviating their middle one.

So when did this terrible and dumb tradition of ours get started?

I took a peek way back in our history. I looked at the signers of our Declaration of, independence. There were 56 of them, all men of course. Not a single one used an initial. It was just John Doe, so to speak. For that matter, only three used a middle name—Robert Treat Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee. So it seems this nonsensical habit of initializing started later.

Next I looked at our current US senators – all 100 of them. Not one uses a middle name. Or a middle initial, for that matter. So that’s a full 180 degree reversal from what our signers did.

But a curious thing. So many of them—the great majority– use a nickname! Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz. Tom Udall. Mitch McConnell. On and on. How come? Methinks many politicians consider it smart to cozy up to voters and potential voters by sounding like just the nice neighbor next door. Culture is so, so interesting. But speaking of that, nicknames are common around the world, I believe. I’ve even had a few.

So, let me get back. When did this middle initial craze begin to show up? I checked a list of our presidents. Ten of the 44 used a middle initial. First, James K. Polk, 1845. Then Ulysses S. Grant, 1869. So, the mid 19th century might be the answer.

By the way, just two are listed with a nickname and they’re still among us, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

So who was the Smart Alec who originated this imbecilic shortcutting? I have no idea. Let me speculate. He must have been somebody about to sign an important document. Must have had a very long name—a first name, middle name, and family name too long for the space he had. So he just truncated. Used the initial for name number 2. Those looking on must have been impressed. Became copy cats. That launched the new style. And here we are.

If you have a better explanation, or what you think is a better hypothesis, please, please let me know.

I told you there’s a deeper explanation in my case. I was named Jean-Guy LaPlante. My parents were French-speaking immigrants from Québec up there in Canada. My name, Jean-Guy, is totally in tune with the tradition and culture up there. The purpose of the hyphen is simple–to let everybody know that my name is not Jean or Guy. It is the two together.

As I grew up into young manhood, I tried to Americanize myself. Don’t we all do that? So natural to go with the flow. What did I do? I started using Jean G. LaPlante. That became my byline on one newspaper and then that one.

Now and then I might get a call from someone asking for Miss Jean LaPlante or a letter addressed that way. That irritated me.

My solution was dramatic. I changed Jean to John– which is the English equivalent–and changed the G. to Guy and I went to a lawyer and got my name registered legally as John Guy LaPlante and he charged me $35. That was that. Now, for sure that offended my parents though they said nothing. Very insensitive on my part. I feel guilty about it.

Know what? If I could go back 55 years, I would act differently. I would still be Jean-Guy LaPlante in everything to everybody, my byline. Now if somebody would not quite get it, I would think, “That’s your problem. Not mine.” My friends and associates would quickly have gotten the hang of it Might even have liked Jean-Guy LaPlante. Well, I do. It delights me that a small few very close to me still call me that.

But back to my point that using a middle name is unAmerican. Here’s why. It’s simple. Look at the facts–my experience, for instance. Despite my earnest efforts, no way can I get officialdom or the establishment to go along and use my full middle name.

I pay a lot of bills by check. Every check has John Guy LaPlante imprinted at the top. I always sign every check John Guy LaPlante. And I fill in every single form of any kind as John Guy LaPlante. Bank accounts. Insurance policies. Voter registration. Driver’s license. Subscriptions.

Of course I have credit and debit cards. Which I signed up for as John Guy LaPlante. But it’s John G. LaPlante that’s embossed on them. And what an awful consequence that has.

Everything comes to me as John Guy LaPlante! You name it. I even get Christmas and birthday cards from very close folks as John G. LaPlante. I can fight it but can’t beat it.

What’s best is just to grin and bear it.

Now that I think about it, the only important thing that carries my full name is my email address, johnguylaplante@yahoo.com.

Maybe there’s a universal app out there that automatically switches any middle name into an initial!

One more thought. I think some people are so used to using just their middle initial that they have to think a minute to recall their middle name. Yet I’m sure their father and mother chose that middle name with care. Maybe to honor somebody. Or please somebody. Or to respect a tradition. How sad.

Oh, try this on yourself. Quick, what’s your middle name? Now ask your children, “What’s my middle name?” Now ask your spouse the same thing.

By the way, I must tell you something else. I also feel it is wrong for daughters to give up their family name when they marry. Other cultures are smarter about that, too, and use a nice compromise. Spanish, for instance. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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