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What’s in a (Southern) Name? Double-Barrel Names and Southern Identity


What is Southern "Heritage"?

Being born below the Mason-Dixon line always felt like a belt looped one ring too tight. It fits—but it isn’t comfortable. You wear it because you must, because things are strange and incomplete and too casual without it. The feeling of being too much resonates for many who don’t fit in with the traditional tintype of Southern identity, but it’s not easy to hide. It’s right there in every church potluck between the potato salad and deviled eggs. But when your life is marked by supper tables, it’s easy to get a little big for your britches. It’s easy for other people to get comfortable with your feelings of being too much, not enough, and altogether out of place. We don’t question Uncle Ed when he says something we politely refer to as “off-color” because he’s from a “different time.” These “different times” are heralded as better, truer versions of the South: they are the pure, innocent, unadulterated versions of who we really are. They are the things we are taught to be proud of, even if they invalidate our own identity or the identities of others. These times are where our traditions, our culture, and most importantly-- our heritage.It’s a magic word designed to excuse everything from the ugly doilies on the coffee table to the declaration of treason hanging from a flagpole in the front yard. The line between preserving one’s heritage and losing oneself is as thin as seersucker.

Southern Names

This dichotomy presents an interesting narrative in Southern culture, right down to the way Southerners name their children. Mary Anne. Bobby Sue. Ricky Lee. Three syllables cut across a rented-out dining hall in a familiar lilt from the throats of open-armed relatives. Familiar faces shuffle through the door with potholders and new babies, both equally eager to present their achievements to the family. Women “of a certain age” leave homemade fudge and green bean casserole on a set of long, black fold-out tables. Old men sit arguing over plates of barbecue about high school football scores. Children run back and forth between tables of cousins and Kool-Aid. Wind blows through pines and magnolias whistling into an open corridor. There are few things more quintessentially Southern than family reunions—that is, of course, than the people who attend them. Names mean everything to a Southerner; it tells us “who your people are.” The familiar collection of syllables an essential part of the local dialect; to pronounce “Betty Lou” without the “Lou” is just about as rude as forgetting the “Brother” in front of "Brother James.” You’re leaving half of the identity person behind—and to many, perhaps the most important part.

What is a Double-Barrel Name?

Double names, also known as double-barreled names, have a rich history in the South and have become as synonymous with Southern identity as sweet tea and biscuits. And they are as bold and gracious as the culinary experience—you simply cannot have the full experience of the food without the people who made it. The religious enthusiasm, both literal and metaphorical, Southerners have for these naming conventions is no surprise. It’s tied into our heritage; it’s the way we identify ourselves to those who may know us, if not by our faces but the mantle of the names we carry. For many of us, it connects us to family we may have never even met. It reunites us with those who are remembered in reverence. Like many Southern cultural traditions, the double-barreled name has deep spiritual roots.

The Origins of the Double-Barrel Name

This naming convention was brought to the American South from a distinct European heritage. According to Southern Living’s Melissa Locker, Roman Catholic influences from French, Irish, and Scottish immigrant families brought this unique tradition to the American South. As a show of religious devotion, it became poplar to name one’s children after saints and other people of theological importance, which is why some names, like Mary and Joseph, are more common than others. Of course, church pews filled with only with the mother of God can make for a very confusing roll call, so the second name is added. Not many modern Southerners are Catholic, with the majority identifying as Protestant Christians, so the emphasis on religious figures has largely fell to the wayside. However, it can also be a fashionable name to keep up with the time or to carry more earthly sentimentalities. In lieu of saints, children can be named after other important individuals in the life of the child or the life of the parents, religious or otherwise. This name is more often carried down from generation to generation—in my own family, “Martha Ann”” There was a “Lily Mae” before them, in the age of steel magnolias and the Tennessee Water Authority. “Mary” isn’t so memorable; “Mary Sue” is bonafide cultural phenomenon.

Southerners have two names—whether those are literal given names with an admittedly endearing tradition or whether it’s the face you learn to wear. Like a given name, we wear it on our sleeves. It’s part of the roll call that we find ourselves on, regardless of where we decide to replant ourselves. People connect our name with political ideologies and stereotypes that we may have never espoused to. Many an unfortunate soul are named Jefferson Davis, even if it doesn’t quite fit up to the double-barreled standard.

© 2022 Daniel Merrier