Two-part personal names, such as those consisting of a first or given name and a family name, are common throughout the modern world in general and in the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds in particular. The use of two-part personal names is not universal, however. Also, there are major differences as to how they are implemented. We will see, for instance, that there are some major differences in how naming conventions work in the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking worlds.
First of all, all people have a given name, also known as a first name or personal name. Another term for this name in the Christian tradition in English was Christian name, since such names typically had to come from a set of names approved by the Church and derived from the Bible or from saints’ names and it was given to the child at the time of baptism.
In Spanish, the first name is still known primarily as nombre de pila, or ‘baptismal name’. This name is derived from the word pila, which refers to the stone container for holy water used in baptism. This noun comes from Lat. pīla, meaning ‘mortar, vessel in which things are pounded’ and, related to that meaning, ‘washbasin, sink’. The word pila is still used in some dialects of Spanish with the meaning ‘sink, basin’, though it sounds archaic in most dialects. The word pila is used in modern Spanish to refer to small-size batteries (containers of electricity), such as those for watches or flashlights, as opposed to large batteries such as those in a car, which are called baterías. (In some dialects of Spanish, however, both are called baterías.)
There was another word pīla in Latin, which may have been cognate with the former, but which had a very different meaning, namely ‘pillar’ or ‘pier’. Perhaps to avoid the confusion, this second word pīla was changed to *pilāre, meaning ‘pillar’, in Medieval Latin or Vulgar Latin, which is the source of Eng. pillar and Sp. pilar. The second pīla did not disappear, however, and it ended up as Sp. pila and its cognate Eng. pile, both meaning ‘pile, heap’. English borrowed the word pile from French in the early 15th century. Spanish may have borrowed this word from Catalan (cf. Corominas).
Middle names in English
It was not uncommon for people to have more than one given name in the past, in order to honor different ancestors. In the modern English-speaking world, this custom has settled into most people having one optional second given name, called middle name, in addition to their main (first) name. In the Hispanic world, the tradition of giving multiple names to a child at the time of baptism and in birth certificates is not dead, but for official purposes, people only have one single given name. Some such given names may be compounded names, however, as we shall see.
In the English-speaking world, the additional, secondary given name has been known since the 19th century as a middle name.[i] As we said, the middle name is a remnant of the multiple (secondary and optional) given names of earlier times. Middle names are not required and people usually have at most one single middle name. Only royalty and other aristocracy nowadays have more than two such names.[ii]
In North America, the middle name is often reduced to an initial and not used at all for most purposes. In the United States, a middle name is not required and some people only have a middle initial, which does not stand for any name, as in the name of the 33rd president of the United States, Harry S. Truman.[iii] This middle initial is only used nowadays (optionally) in official documents and formal situations. Some people turn a mother’s last name into a child’s middle name, as in John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK).[iv] Others turn a maiden family name into a middle name upon adopting a husband’s last name.
Compound first names in Spanish
In the Spanish-speaking world, there are no middle names in official names in the same sense as in the English-speaking world. Some people may have multiple given (first) names given to them at birth, but for purposes of identification, only one is used. Spanish names, however, sometimes look like they contain a middle name at first sight. That is because Spanish often uses compound first names, such as José Luis, Juan Carlos, or María Elena. These names may look like a combination of first and middle names to an English speaker, but that is not what they are.
Compound first names are different from given names that consist of a first name and a middle name in that the two parts cannot be split and are thus pronounced as single words and, as such, they contain a single stressed syllable. Take the woman’s name María Elena, for example. It is not pronounced [ma.ˈɾi.a.e.ˈle.na], two words with seven syllables, two of which are stressed, but rather [ma.ɾi̯ae̯.ˈle.na], one word with four syllables and a single stressed syllable.
In earlier times, following Catholic tradition, such compound names were typically formed with the name María, in deference to the Virgin Mary, along with another name. In the case of men’s names, the name Maria is added after the other name, e.g. Jose María, as in the name of the former president of Spain, José María Aznar.
In the case of female names, María is typically the first part of a compound name that includes some quality of the Virgin Mary, e.g. María de la Caridad ‘Mary of Charity’ or a place in which the Virgin Mary supposedly made an appeared. In these cases, women are typically known by the second part of the name, in this case Caridad ‘Charity’, though their official name may include the María part. Needless to say, such names are not the norm any longer in most Spanish-speaking countries, but they were in earlier times and they are still found. We will look at some of these names in detail in section §44.2.1 below.