I grew up in Northern Virginia, which was a bit too far north to know people with double names. Maybe 90 minutes south in Richmond it would have happened, but even in the ’70s, double names had confined themselves to the Southern region almost exclusively. I knew one double-named person my entire life before I moved further south.

Double names are expected in the south, and usually contain at least one family name.

While I’m a Liza, my full name is Mary Eliza. But the most I ever considered adding to my two-syllable name was one more syllable, adding the “e” for Eliza in the fifth grade. It didn’t take. There is a sociological phenomenon where some parts of the country will glady embrace a longer name and other parts eagerly try to shorten them. Trying to add a syllable was simply too much to ask!

In high school, although I had never envisioned my wedding or dreamed about what type of man I would marry, I was convinced that my first daughter would have the name Blakistone, after my maternal grandmother’s middle name, and we would call her Blake. This happened, but I live in Nashville, so she’s actually Mary Blake (yes, a nickname of a middle name combined with a first name … Southernism at its best!). And she is one of dozens at her school and at our church with a double name. Others include Anna Grace, Grace Anne, Olivia Claire, Kelsey Kay, Anne Winston, Mary Beth, Anna Clark … Several now go by just one name, or their initials, but plenty have kept their double names.

… a nickname of a middle name combined with a first name … Southernism at its best!

My middle daughter almost became Reese Anne, but with a last name of Graves, the initials spelled RAG, which just wouldn’t work. So she became Virginia Reese. She only goes by her middle name but has been affectionately called Ginny Reese a few times here and there …

The most common way to make a double name in the South is to use Mary, Anna or Jane preceding a family name. At Vanderbilt, I was in school with a Mary Brown, Mary Michael, Mary Beth, Jane Allison, Mary Margaret, Anna Kate and Anne Marie, to name a few. Emma is another great name to add a family name and make it a Southern double name: Emma James, Emma Catherine … endless possibilities!

If you go by your middle name (like I do — in fact both my husband and I go by nicknames of our middle name … believe me that it causes issues at times!), you’re likely to identify with some of the problems double-named people incur:

  • Double-named people will continually have their name shortened to initials. Katherine Clinton becomes KC, Anne Caster becomes AC, Katherine King becomes KK, Mary Beth becomes MB, etc. It’s perfectly reasonable in this day and age of texting and emailing, where we are always looking for shortcuts, for people to shorten the double-named person to two letters. HOWEVER, many of double names want to keep their double name, so while you may type out “MB,” don’t assume Mary Beth wants that to be her vocalized name. Ask her first if she minds you shortening her name. She’s likely fine with it, but ask!
  • When you are filling out a scantron and it asks for your first name and middle initial, what do you do? Many just fill it out with a hyphen between their first name and middle name, making it a linked double name, and leaving the middle name initial blank. For those who go by their middle name, this workaround is not possible, so in this case, we’re jealous of the double-named people!
  • You find many will simply drop your second name. This is particularly true in college classes and doctors offices. You simply become “Mary.” As someone who goes by their middle name, this is the exact same thing. It becomes awkward over time to keep insisting people call you by the name your friends and family call you, so you learn to pick your battles. For me, I’ll accept Mary for pretty much anyone I will never see again. But a doctor who I am likely to have a decades-long relationship with? I insist on my middle name, and all of you double-named people should insist on them using your two names!
    • “Actually, I have a double name. It’s Grace Anne, not Grace.”
    • “I go by middle name, actually an abbreviation of it; it’s Liza.” “Would you like us to write down Elizabeth?” “No. That’s not my name. It’s actually Mary Eliza, if you want to hear the whole thing. But, I’ve never had a ‘Beth,’ and I go by Liza if you could write that in the chart. Thanks!”
    • The phone rings and the person says, “Hi, I’m calling for Mary from the [name of organization].” This is where we all have a trump card. We know the person calling does not know us. “I’m sorry, she doesn’t live here. Please stop calling.”

But, what about the boss who just insists that he/she call you by one name, and not both (especially true for double-named women who live in other regions)? It’s tricky, but continue to have your email signature reflect both names, and a hyphen really does help. Instead of ending with “Mary Blake,” where someone can easily think that second name is your last name, or “Mary Blake Simpson,” where someone thinks you really just want everyone to know your middle name, try “Mary-Blake Simpson.” That should clear up any confusion for anyone who simply isn’t used to the whole Southern double-name thing.

In a world where geographic differences continue to disappear and the “faster is better” approach to life continues to find its way into all things, preserving double names shows a commitment to tradition. And, since so many of these names have family ties, it bonds the name bearer to their ancestors, which is really a nice way to connect to generations past your entire life through. Besides, a double name instantly lets everyone know that you are (usually) connected to the South, and it can be a conversation starter wherever in the country you may be!