So reports author Bruce Feiler (who dropped his), writing in the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section of July 13, 2014. The middle initial—once an indicator of authority, accomplishment and sophistication—is now seen as extraneous, old-fashioned, impersonal, classist, obstructive, ostentatious and even priggish.
Phew! What a heavy load for one little letter!
The middle initial hasn’t been with us all that long anyway, Feiler says. Middle names only came into widespread use in the late nineteenth century, when population growth required people to add more names to identify themselves. The middle initial, as a shorter means of differentiation, didn't become common until the early 20th century. Think of it as nomenclature’s equivalent of zip+4.
Now, the pendulum swings again towards brevity and equanimity, and the middle initial is déclassé.
Which leads me to wonder why I am using my middle initial, “E,” on my book. I had a choice after all. The first draft of the cover that my publisher, Scott Gerber, designed for “Farewell, Aleppo” didn’t have my middle initial, and I asked him to add it.
It certainly wasn’t to differentiate myself from the other Claudette Sutton's out there. In my life I have barely met enough Claudette’s to count on two hands.
And no, it’s not an easy trick for dignifying my book or my writing. I have to count on what’s inside the covers to do that.
The choice has more to do (as does my book itself) with tradition and identity. By Syrian-Jewish custom, my middle name, Esther, should have been my first name. Traditionally—with few exceptions to this day—a family's first-born son or daughter is given the name of the paternal grandfather or grandmother, as the case may be. The second boy and girl are named for the maternal grandparents. After that, names are up for grabs. As a second daughter, I was in line for the name of mother’s mother, Esther Beyda. but my parents, straddling Old World customs and American suburbia, tweaked the tradition. I received Esther as my middle name.
Growing up, I didn’t use my middle name or initial except where required on school forms or passport applications. I only adopted it in daily life when I moved to Santa Fe from the east coast in my late 20s and applied for a new driver’s license and bank account. My grandmother felt honored, and I found a small daily connection to my grandmother and family, from whom I'd just moved two thousand miles away. Not a bad feat for a single letter.
A name reflects our individual identity, and also our connection to others. The balance requires a choice. Twenty-seven years ago I decided not to adopt my husband’s last name (a decision I haven’t regretted), because I felt clear that we were united in spirit even if our names remained different. I still do.
But given the chance to let middle initial fall by the wayside, I chose to pick it up. That letter reminds me of my grandmother, my heritage and my family – all parts of my self.
Plus I like the look of it: the fulcrum of a single letter between my first and last names; the upright, linear “E” contrasting the curved first letters of my given and surnames.
Back in high school journalism class, I learned how newspaper style was influenced by the physical reality of typesetting. Back in the days when men with ink-stained fingers set each word of a newspaper letter by letter in bars of metal type, any unnecessary mark of punctuation was like a stone in a mountain climber’s pack.
Different forces of streamlining are at play with today’s digital communication. It’s only a matter of time before the middle initial goes the way of the serial comma.
Until then, I’m embracing my “E.”