Nine Notable People with Fake Middle Names

George Washington Carver

Middle names are mutable things. Without going too deeply into my own biography – because we'd be here all day – my middle name Tapio is actually my father's surname, and it was mine too at birth. Technically, I've had three different middle names in my life. And my wife changed hers after we got married; now she's a Tapio too. And so it goes with the rest of the world. As celebrities often rechristen themselves entirely, the following nine name changes seem mild in comparison. Still, each has an interesting story behind it.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant. It's true that the "S" in Harry S. Truman is short for nothing. But at least Truman's parents gave him that "S". Not so for this other president, who was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. The "S" was added by Pennsylvania Rep. Thomas L. Hamer while recommending the young Grant to West Point; it's said that Hamer mistakenly believed Grant's middle name to be Simpson. Grant liked the patriotic flair of the "U.S." initials, so he kept the "S" but eschewed the "Simpson".
  2. J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter fans know that the "J" in the author's name stands for Joanne. (Friends call her Jo.) But Rowling was born without a middle name. The "K" stands for Kathleen, which she added to honor her grandmother when selecting "J. K." as her androgynous nom de plume. It's unknown whether Rowling has since gone through a legal name change to make the Kathleen permanent.
  3. Lars von Trier. Danish filmmaker Lars Trier first included the "von" when he was 19, then adopted it full-time as his film career took off. He did it partly as a tribute to famed directors Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg – their "vons" were phony, too.
  4. David O. Selznick. The Gone with the Wind producer added the "O" as, like many on this list, he was born without a middle name. According to Peter Bogdanovich, Alfred Hitchcock, who worked with Selznick on Rebecca and Spellbound, inserted a Selznick in-joke into North by Northwest: Cary Grant's character, Roger O. Thornhill, quips that the "O" in his name stands for nothing.
  5. George Washington Carver. The peanut-obsessed scientist gave himself the middle name "Washington" as a young man, around 1885. Reasons vary: I've read that it was either after Booker T. Washington or to differentiate himself from another classmate named George Carver.
  6. Eddie Rickenbacker. The ace fighter pilot was already a famous race car driver when World War I broke out. After altering the spelling of his surname from the more German-looking "Rickenbacher", he reportedly signed his full name twenty-six times, with twenty-six different middle initials, and decided he liked "V" the best. He then stretched it out to Vernon for the sake of "respectability".
  7. M. Night Shyamalan. It should surprise no one that Manoj Shyamalan did not have the middle name "Night" at birth. (It was Nelliyattu.) He changed it as a teenager. He told Time Magazine that he did it to show his affinity with Native Americans. Uh, what? More likely he did it because he thought "Night" looked cool.
  8. Miley Cyrus. Born Destiny Hope Cyrus – which sounds more like a celebrity name than what she ultimately went by – the pop singer was nicknamed "Smiley" as a baby. As the "S" disappeared, the budding Disney star chose Miley Ray Cyrus as her professional moniker. Like her father Billy Ray Cyrus, her middle name is for her grandfather Ronald Ray Cyrus, a Kentucky politician.
  9. Adam Carolla. Another born-without-a-middle-namer, the Los Angeles comedian/host put "Lakers" as his middle name while renewing his driver's license around 1984, in the midst of a Lakers-Celtics championship run. It was processed without a hitch. (You could do such things easily in the pre-9/11 era.) It's been Carolla's legal name ever since.