Thursday, 16 July 2009

The sociolinguistics of English middle names

I just picked up and put away a book I'd bought in a second-hand bookstore before going to Romania in 1978, called "The Balkans in our Time", by Robert Lee Wolff, a mid-century Harvard historian.  I realized that he's yet another example of a generalization that must somehow tell us something about how language works: Anglo-elite American academic historians often use their full middle name.  Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager come readily to mind, but Robert Lee Wolff fits the pattern, as does another more recent writer, Walter Russell Mead.  And Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell, was a historian. It's hard to search for these on Google, but I'm pretty sure I've noticed others, and I can't think of people who use their middle name and *aren't* American academic historians, except for good ol' boys like Billy Bob Thornton and Jerry Lee Lewis.


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