The Intrigue of Middle Names

'Tosin Adeoti
3 min readApr 1, 2024

As soon as I entered the 10-digit number she gave me into the bank app, her full name instantly appeared. I am not just talking about her first name and last name, but also her middle name, Funmilayo. It felt so strange. All the Funmis I knew were easygoing and stress-free, so seeing someone so outspoken and opinionated bear the name took me aback.

Much later, I would reflect on the concept of middle names and how intimate they are that most of us have no idea about the middle names of our extended family members. Save for those in my immediate family and a few friends, I have no idea about the middle names of the people I interact with on a daily basis.

Middle names occupy a peculiar space in our society. We use them most in bureaucratic contexts. They show up on driver’s licenses and passports, but I have never been asked when filling those less-kempt logs at the bus parks or when booking plane tickets. You probably don’t include it in your signature, and you probably don’t put it in your social media profiles. For many of us, the name feels like a secret. Even so, you might still be offended if a partner or a close friend forgets yours. Knowing this seemingly benign piece of information has become emblematic of your connection.

The other day, in our Primary School WhatsApp group, someone asked about one of our classmates, “Please, what about Kolawole ***?” “Chai… Let me check my contacts. It’s been long…Tommy,” another responded. That brought back memories. He was one of my closest friends. The very first person in whose house I ever saw a SEGA video game. We would be in his house playing Sega Mega Drive football, and his mum, a most lovely and welcoming woman, would be echoing “Tomiwa” at intervals. Their neighbors, some of whom happened to attend the same school, would call him Tomiwa at home and Kolawole in school.

I didn’t like it. Don’t call me Joseph. Joseph is for me. Tosin is for you. Sometimes, I feel like my parents have forgotten they named me Joseph. Maybe not. When Pearl was born, as is the custom in Yorubaland, everyone chimed in to give her names. There is Temidayo, still my favorite name for her. There is Emem. There is Dolapo. There is Oluwaseun. There is Abike. And many other names. To date, her 4 grandparents call her by the names they gave her, and in our previous neighborhood, they only know her as Esther. Which would be her middle name since her first name is settled?

Interestingly, in many cultures, middle names either don’t exist or are not common. Countries such as Japan, Korea, and China don’t have anything that directly correlates to middle names as we know them. I have not delved deeper to know the origins of middle names in African societies, but I know that names like Adunni, Akanbi, Alabi, Aweda, and Abeni are other names rooted in Yorubaland.

Middle names are special. They may not telegraph all of who we are, but maybe sharing them feels so intimate because they carry a small piece of us. More than being a few letters printed on your ID, they’re a window into your family history, your parents’ tastes, and sometimes even your relatives’ aspirations for who you might become.