December 15, 2018

What, you do use your middle name?

By John Guy LaPlante

Hey, don’t you know that’s un-American?! Taboo! You’re supposed to use just a middle initial.

Oh, sure, you were given, yes, given a middle name. That’s normal and expected. But I’ll bet you’ve never used it. Timothy or Susan or Andrew or whatever. You made do with just a middle initial. Thought that was just fine. And that’s the proper American thing to do. Our culture insists on that. Will not tolerate a full, spelled out middle name.

How many folks do you know who use their middle name day in and day out?

Well, I have a middle name. It’s Guy. You saw it up top in my byline. And I’d feel naked without it. But boy, what a price I’ve paid!

The reason we all get a middle name is simple.  John Charles Smith sets you apart from John Richard Smith or John Theodore Smith. That’s the obvious reason. But maybe you were given the middle name of Charles or Richard or Theodore by your Mom to honor her dad, who had that name. Or by your Dad, reasoning the same way.

But from their earliest days—at the latest when they got signed up for kindergarten—John Charles Smith became John C. Smith and John Richard Smith became John R. Smith and John Theodore Smith became John T. Smith. Wonderful! Bravo! That was the thing to do.  Same is true of our sisters and female friends..

And they never looked back. That’s the name they’ve used—and for everything! — ever since. When they hit 30 or 40, they may have to think for a couple of minutes — might not even remember what their middle name was! I’ve seen that happen.

Can you imagine the teasing and bullying and finger-wagging they would have suffered as kids if  they had insisted on using their middle name?!

Well, I’ve gone through it.  My checks are imprinted up top with John Guy LaPlante. If I pay a bill with a check, for sure any receipt or thank you will get mailed back to me as John G. LaPlante. That’s how I’m known by IRS and Medicare, by City Hall and the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Utility Company. By everybody and anybody.  I’ve even gotten mail from relatives as John G. LaPlante. Hey, come on!

My books say John Guy LaPlante on the cover. As you know, that’s the byline on anything I write.  But guess how I’ll be addressed in a letter from a reader?  You are correct! With Guy reduced to  a mere G.!  Sure, that used to irritate me. But now I shrug it off. Well, sort of.

If you want to go through life with just a middle initial, no flack from me! But just think why you’ve been doing that and why you think it’s okay.

How did this cultural must come to pass? Well, let me speculate.  Maybe somebody had a long name, say Archibald Alexander Worthington. He was a lawyer and signed lots of documents. One day to speed things up he signed as Archibald A. Worthington. Others noticed and thought, Good idea! And that fed a fad that became the must which we live with today.

I’ve spent serious time in other countries.  In France, for instance, and Mexico and Ukraine. Having a middle name seems universal.  I can’t recall anyone among friends speaking French or Spanish or Ukrainian or Russian (which lots of Ukrainians use as their first language) using a middle initial. That’s why I call it an American phenomenon.

By now I’m sure you’re thinking, What the heck is wrong with this LaPlante? Is he wacko? Well, surprise, I did it for good reason.

Some of you know I’m French by way of Quebec. My parents came down from there and became Americans. I was born here. Their first child. I was baptized Jean-Guy. Up there, using a hyphenated name like mine is a popular way of naming sons. Also daughters.

Maman and Papa never spoke to me or about me as just Jean or Guy. Always Jean-Guy.

When I started newspapering and earned a byline for a good story, it became Jean G.  Then when I landed a job at the big Worcester Telegram & Gazette, my byline continued to be Jean G. LaPlante. I put up with it. But several times I got letters from readers addressed to Miss Jean LaPlante. I didn’t like that. Then the paper started using John G. Yes, better but it still didn’t sound right to me.

One day in a huff, I decided, enough! I went to a lawyer. He filled out a form, I signed it, he took it to court and I became John Guy LaPlante. It was done in a day. The cost? Just $25.

(If I had asked for a change in my surname, which did not interest me, I would have had to explain why in detail and the process would have had to be advertised so people could have protested. With legitimate reason.)

But oh, the folly of youth! I was no longer living close to my dear father and mother, and I made that enormous change without ever talking it over or explaining to them. Awful! Deep down I still feel it a betrayal of my heritage.

Know what? If I could turn the clock back, I would not change my name. I would have insisted my name is Jean-Guy and certainly my friends and associates would have accepted that. Might even have liked the French uniqueness of it. I think if I had explained to my editor, he would have made my byline Jean-Guy. Oh, well…..

By the way, at the T & G I had a colleague with a French name, meaning from France.  Sanche de Gramont. He didn’t like it. Know what? He got his surname changed to Ted Morgan. Notice that “de Gramont” has nine characters and so does Ted Morgan, and they’re the same nine letters re-arranged. How about that?!  But we continued to call him Sanche and he seemed to consider that totally natural.

(What’s remarkable is that Sanche de Gramont / Ted Morgan went on to the New York Herald Tribune and won a Pulitzer Prize for on-deadline local reporting. Then morphed into a prolific author of distinguished biographies and histories.  Google / Bing him.)

By now I realize that having merely a middle initial has become so ingrained as an Americanism that it will always be so. I can protest it, but it won’t change a thing. So be it.

I’m been getting along in years, as some of you know, and I’ve given thought to some big thoughts, such as what would I like chiseled on my gravestone.  And I’ve decided, sort of, that it would be Jean-Guy LaPlante aka (for also known as) John Guy LaPlante. But I’m not sure I want a gravestone, so not a big problem. But yes, I’d like it in my obituary.

Sure, Jean-Guy / John Guy would be a fifty-fifty compromise. But a compromise is often a sign of wisdom. And wisdom is just common sense put into practice. You agree? Or you don’t?

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