Let this be my contribution to the 2020 discourse: We don’t talk about Joe Biden’s middle name nearly enough. Contrary to what Donald Trump may want you to believe, it’s not Sleepy. It’s elegant, musical, and just French enough.
I stumbled upon his name during a recent sleepless night, part of which I spent scrolling through the former vice president’s Wikipedia page. The name is right at the top, across from a portrait of the former vice president grinning wearily, as if listening to his social media manager explain how TikTok works.
This was news to me, but not news itself. Back when certain individuals took issue with Obama’s “Hussein” moniker, New York magazine dug up C-SPAN footage of Biden explaining his own.
“It’s my grandmother Biden’s maiden name,” he said. “It’s French. And it goes back a long, long way. Allegedly the Robinettes came over with Lafayette and never went home. I don’t know that. We can’t guarantee that.”
A fancy, Francophile name might go against the bootstrapping image Biden has curated over his 50-plus years out politicking, so it makes sense he might want to keep it on the down low. But he isn’t the only civil servant whose name might make you double-take.
I audibly gasped the first time I learned Robert Mueller’s middle name was Swan. Michael Bloomberg’s is “Rubens,” which my very cultured editor reminded me could be a chi-chi nod to the Baroque painter. (It immediately reminded me of a deli sandwich.) And that’s Colorado Senator Michael Farrand Bennet to you.
For reasons I will never quite understand, a man whose birth certificate gracefully reads Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg chooses to just go by Pete.
Then there are those who eschew their first names for their middle ones, like Willard Mitt Romney or Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
Mitch McConnell was actually born Addison Mitchell McConnell. But that man perhaps did not want to become New York City’s bitchiest theater critic, and so we have the more blue collar-friendly “Mitch.”
Distinctive middle names are not just the domain of Washington. Celebrities who spent the better part of this century naming their kids things like Apple and North West have also inherited eyebrow-raising ones themselves.
There’s Hugh John Mungo Grant, Richard Tiffany Gere, Quincy Delight Jones, Ben Geza Affleck, Matt Paige Damon, and Kevin Norwood Bacon. Donald Trump was born to Frederick Christ Trump, who gave his son the more inscrutable middle name of John.
“It is generally accepted that parents wished to ensure their children carried the name of a saint along with a given name, and from this practice arose middle names”
“Historians will tell you that people with multiple names were found in Ancient Rome, but the practice disappeared for centuries until resurrected in Europe,” Sherri Suzanne, founder of the baby name consulting company My Name for Life, told The Daily Beast. “It is generally accepted that parents wished to ensure their children carried the name of a saint along with a given name, and from this practice arose middle names.”
At first, middle names did not land in America. “If you look back, the founding fathers didn’t have middle names,” Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard, said. “The idea that we just choose a middle name is pretty recent.”
The concept emerged around the 19th century as a way to highlight advantageous family connections. Those who did not have a rich Grandma Doris or distantly-related Roosevelt to garner inheritance money from saw no reason to bestow a middle name upon their children.
“Many families in the 20th century felt that middle names are superfluous letters on a birth certificate that are rarely used,” Suzanne said.
The blue-blood allure of a third name eventually trickled down to the masses. According to Pamela Redmond Satran, co-creator of the website Nameberry “connective middle names” started right around the Baby Boom.
“[Think of] Donald John Trump or Elizabeth Ann Warren,” Satran explained. “[Parents were saying] ‘Well, guess we gotta give the kid a middle name.’ My middle name is Ann. Why? I never use it. I basically want to make it disappear, because it doesn’t have any meaning or serve and purpose.”
Sure, it’s tough to draw symbolism from the parochial “Diane” Hillary Clinton’s parents chose for her. But on a personal level, getting to know someone’s middle name can feel quite intimate.
“It’s like getting a glimpse inside somebody’s house,” Wattenberg said. “Even though for 99 percent of us, it’s just an odd vestige of what our parents were thinking about at the time.”
Whenever I uncover the middle name of a friend, lover, and yes, maybe even Joe Biden, I feel closer to them. It’s like entering someone’s childhood bedroom for the first time and seeing the concert posters they hung up when they were 14. Or driving around their hometown, imagining their former selves walking down the streets. Oh, so this is why you’re you.
Or, as Parents Editor-in-Chief Julia Edelstein put it, “When you hear someone’s middle name for the first time, you think about that moment their parents came up with it, and what they were thinking. It’s a little clue into their creation.”