Middle Names

My new degree certificate arrives, and there it is, my full moniker, ‘Thomas William Greenwell’. Because I’m a Bill, and Bill begins with neither T nor W, this has caused me problems in the past – notably with cheques, at one point, since my bank went through a phase of refusing to cash cheques made out to B.Greenwell, and I had to become ‘Thomas William (Bill)’ in the cheque account. Being known by your second name is a frustration, but it is practically endemic in my immediate family. My mother’s sister, Eleanor Mabel Frail, got round it in her late teens by switching from ‘Mabel’ to ‘Eleanor’ (she also re-spelt Frail as Frayle, since she was a professional actress, and the homonymic version looked better on posters).

Not sure why Bill is a shortened version of William, but there’s an interesting article on the contractions of names at http://www.geocities.com/edgarbook/names/other/nicknames.html – this says that Bill is a nineteenth century invention, but that can’t be right, can it? Or was William III not known as Billy till later in Irish demonology/blessedness (depending on which side you’re on)? My own ‘Thomas William’ is a classic example of people honouring their ancestors. My great-grandfather was Thomas William, and he’d died four years before I was born. The family firm was T.W. Greenwell, so I had no choice, or rather, it seems my parents didn’t. And he in turn had been named for his mother’s father (William Herring), who had died a couple of years earlier, and for his father, a Thomas, who was named for his mother’s father, Thomas Henderson, who had died a couple of years earlier. So here I am with a compound of the names of an eighteenth-century potter and an eighteenth-century ship-owner. And presumably, common as the two names are, their owners were in turn named after previous ancestors.

I realise this is a huge subject (bring me that PhD application!). (I’ll just throw in that ‘Wendy’ wasn’t invented by J.M.Barrie – I’ve found early nineteenth-century Wendys in censuses; he just poularised it. And while in chucking-in mode, the name Tracy is popular because that was the name of the character played by Grace Kelly in ‘High Society’.)

The only irritation comes when going to any branch of the medical profession, at which point there is always a rigmarole involving the doctor being matey and calling me Thomas (‘or is it Tom?’), and my having to corect them. My mother had the same problem. She was a Grace Muriel, known as Muriel, but always ‘Grace’ in hospitals. This, I am afraid, is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. When she was in her final hospice (she survived two earlier hospices), and when she was told she was about to die, she was told, very gently, by a doctor who addressed her as Grace. Quite unable to speak after witnessing this, I thought ‘She can’t die under the wrong name’, and I took the doctor aside. He had to wait ten minutes while I got my breath back, at which point I thanked him for his courtesy, but said I had one request. My mother was called Muriel; could they please call her that? He was desperately apologetic, and the word went round the hospice that she should be referred to as Muriel.

Worse, I never got the chance to speak to her after that evening, but when I went in the next day, I discovered that the nurses had done as they were told, and had called my mother Muriel as requested – but that she, who had after all put up with being called ‘Grace’ by medical professionals for over eight decades, and had got used to it, had objected. Indeed she had argued, very insistently, that she was not called Muriel but Grace, and had forced them to revert. So I condemned my mother on her penultimate day to having to argue the toss about her name.

Middle names are of course a luxury now – far more rarely attributed to commemorate the dead. It’s more a case of ‘the other name we fancied, but we couldn’t make up our mind, so it’s your middle name, all right?’

And when it’s my turn, I expect I’ll be told ‘Thomas, that’s your lot.’ Nor can I blame my great-grandfather, Thomas William. He was known as Willie.

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