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

 
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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.

The answer

  • Barack Hussein Obama has exactly the same name as his father
  • In cases like this, Junior would be a more usual suffix
  • But II is also possible

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."

Juniors and Numerals

  • Daughters are not usually "juniors" but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt called their first daughter Anna Eleanor Jr
  • President Theodore Roosevelt was the son of another Theodore Roosevelt but did not take the suffix Jr - however, his own son, also Theodore, was known as Theodore Jr
  • John Paul Getty II was also known as John Paul Getty Jr, though he was born Eugene Paul Getty
  • Tom Cruise's full name is Thomas Cruise Mapother IV

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.

Start Quote

VI is the furthest down the line I have come across”

End Quote Sharon Manitta Democrats Abroad

"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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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 81.

    Quite a few people avoid using "junior" since there is a tendency to then call the child "Junior" to avoid confusion with the father. Using "II" just means the parents have to be a little more creative in how they distinguish between father and son.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 80.

    Also of interest is the William Howard Taft series. The first, of course, was president, the second was a senator from Ohio, the third was the ambassador to the Republic of Ireland and the fourth was a high-ranking official in the latter Bush administration. That's quite a legacy for William Howard Taft V, who is a lawyer in New York City.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 79.

    Strange how people are bothered about he should be jr. or II yet I don't remember people raising questions over Gerald Ford who when he was adopted given a completely different name to the one he was born with

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 78.

    Unless you're a ruling prince, there should be a renumbering when the eldest bearer of the name dies. Monarchical ordinals are used to distinguish between historical figures. There's not much in life more humorous than a ditch digger styling himself The Seventh.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 69.

    Like Adlai Stevenson, John Sidney McCain II was the grandson of John Sidney McCain. JSM II is also called John Sidney McCain Sr. His son is JSM III or JSM Jr. The fellow who ran for president is John Sidney McCain IV. He is sometimes called JSM III, but that is his father. After JSM II died, it would have been proper to call JSM III JSM Sr and JSM IV JSM Jr, but those were not used.

 

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