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Moniker Lewinsky (an essay on the middle initial)

W
hen I studied journalism at the University of Arizona, one of the first things I was taught was the supreme importance of middle initials. If a student turned in a story that mentioned a non-middle-initialed person, a failing grade would be automatic. After all, the professors said, if you write about the arrest of John Smith, you're risking a libel suit from the John M. Smiths and John P. Smiths who aren't the John Q. Smith who was arrested. OK, fine, I get it. And then, before I could turn in a story that mentioned "Roots," I spent hours gathering evidence that Alex Haley had no middle name. I was still nervous -- this loophole hadn't been explicitly spelled out -- but apparently there was an exception when the middle initial was nonexistent. Heavy sigh. When I'm in charge, I vowed, there would be a limit to this nonsense.

Well, the UofA apparently isn't the only school that teaches this principle, and my fellow students apparently had the opposite reaction -- joining their tormentors rather than rebelling. (Ever hear of the Stockholm syndrome?)

So now I read newspapers, including my own, that write about "the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal." As opposed to the Monica G. Lewinsky scandal.

Middle initials can be fine and wonderful things. Write "William Buckley" and you'll have readers scratching their heads and asking "Is that the same person as William F. Buckley?"

But not everybody is known by a middle initial. My driver's license says "William F. Walsh," but my public identity, if I can be said to have one, is "Bill Walsh." "William F. Walsh" would be accurate, but plenty of people who know my work wouldn't recognize the reference, and "Bill F. Walsh" would be just plain wrong. (To go slightly off topic, I contend that calling me "William Walsh" without the middle initial is just as stupid.)

I understand where Monica S. Lewinsky is coming from. Newspapers -- especially "papers of record" such as The New York Times and my employer, The Washington Post -- wisely avoid taking liberties with people's names, and this means favoring the formal over the familiar unless the person has expressed a preference for a shortened form or nickname (Jimmy Carter, Ted Turner, Bill Clinton). Occasionally a person prefers the dignity of formal address to a more familiar public identity (Ted Kennedy is Edward M. Kennedy in any decent newspaper), and that's fine. People should be called what they want to be called, within reason (I reserve the right to invoke the Freakin' Weirdo Clause when such a request is not within reason).

In the Lewinsky case, however, in which a public statement of middle-initial preference would be unlikely, I see no reason to scurry around and dig up the middle initial of a distinctively named figure in the news and use it to clutter and obscure that distinctive, widely known name. If this S is so darn important, what does it stand for? Does anyone know? To write "the Kenneth W. Starr investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal" is akin to writing "Las Vegas, Nev.-style gambling" or "the [Muhammad] Ali [formerly Cassius Clay] shuffle." (And even if your paper's style is utterly rigid on the letter of the law, why not strike a small blow for conversational writing and simply avoid the issue when the name is adjectival? Write the Lewinsky affair and save Monica and her cute little S for a noun reference.)

Yes, if you're writing about unknown subjects and there's a risk of misidentification, be as specific as possible, including middle initials. But if you're writing about Monica S. Lewinsky or Jesse L. Jackson or Barbra Q. Streisand* or Mickey Z. Mantle*, spare us the alphabet soup.

*Initials made up for humorous effect. No harm to persons, living or dead, is intended.


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