US & Canada

Who, What, Why: Why the II in Barack Obama's name?

Birth certificate

The US president's birth certificate names him as "Barack Hussein Obama, II". Why does he qualify for the Roman numerals?

When the president released his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday, the focus was on his place of birth, to confirm what most people already knew - he was born in the US.

But it also shone a light on a rarely used part of his name, the II at the end.

The reason for it is, at root, quite simple - the US president has been given his father's name, Barack Hussein Obama. In societies where this is common practice, a method of distinguishing between fathers and sons (and sometimes grandfathers too) is useful.

In the US the son will usually be known as Joe Bloggs Junior. For example, Al Gore, the former US vice-president, is Albert Arnold Gore Jr, because his father was also Albert Arnold Gore.

Joe Bloggs II would typically be used when a son is named after a relative other than his father - his grandfather, for example. However, it is also used, sometimes, as an alternative to Joe Bloggs Jr.

This is what the Behind the Name website has to say on the subject of Jr v II.

"Junior is used to distinguish a son with the same name as his father. The following conditions apply:

1.The Junior must be a son of the father, not a grandson.

2.The names must be exactly the same, including the middle name.

3.The father must still be living.

"'II' is used whenever any close relative, including for example a grandfather or a great-uncle, shares the same name as the child."

Kenyan tradition

Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, written by Judith Martin, takes the same line:

"The oldest living William Wellborn is numberless, and one starts counting Junior, III, IV (or 3d, 4th, a form Miss Manners prefers), and so on from there."

So according to Behind the Name and Miss Manners, the US president should definitely have been Barack Obama Jr, rather than Barack Hussein Obama II.

Is his name, therefore, excruciatingly incorrect?

Actually, it seems there are plenty of IIs in the US who have been named after their father.

"It's normally Junior, but it can be II," says Sharon Manitta, a spokesman in the UK for Democrats Abroad, whose brother is a Junior and who once dated a III. "It doesn't really matter."

The decision to put "II" rather than "Jr" on the birth certificate may not have been the parents' choice, she adds. It could have been taken by the Hawaiian official who registered the birth.

Barack Obama's Kenyan father would have been perfectly comfortable with the idea of passing on his own name to his son - it is a practice common not only in the US, but in his own country too, and especially among the Luo tribe, to which he belonged.

But there too, it would be normal to use the word "Junior" to refer to the son, according to the BBC's Noel Mwakugu in Nairobi.

The comma?

In the US, things change slightly once the third Joe Bloggs in a series comes along. Then even those who began as Juniors may become IIs.

"The designation of Sr or Jr to distinguish between father and son with all the exact same names (first, middle, & last), can be replaced by the Roman numerals, I and II, respectively, when the grandson has the exact same names," explain Dr Dave and Dr Dee, who provide advice on health, medicine, relationships, families, etiquette, manners and fashion.

"The grandson will then have a III after his name. The grandfather and father can continue to use Sr and Jr, respectively, or the numerals."

According to Sharon Manitta, the bigger numbers tend to be used mostly in swankier sections of society.

"Juniors are all over the place, but if it's getting painful - VI is the furthest down the line I have come across - then it's usually an upper-class family," she says.

Observant readers will note that Barack Obama's birth certificate also has a comma between the "Obama" and the "II".

Is this excruciatingly correct, or not? On this point, the authorities disagree. The Chicago Manual of Style is against the comma. Dundee Printing (For Life's Special Moments) is in favour.

At any rate, it seems unlikely to disqualify Barack Obama from holding the presidency.

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