Seeking the Freedom to Name
Last week, an Icelandic teenager made global headlines by launching a legal battle to use the name she considers her own. At her birth, the girl was named Blaer, which is Icelandic for “breeze.” Blaer is not traditionally used as a name, and was not on the government’s approved name list. The family appealed for a review, but the name was ultimately rejected because the word blaer takes a masculine article. (Iceland is one of a number of countries to prohibit names which cause confusion about the individual’s sex.)
The child’s legal name became the placeholder stulka (“girl”), with the expectation that her family would choose a new name. They didn’t. Little Blaer’s parents continued to call her Blaer, and defiantly left the placeholder as her legal ID. Now, at age 15, their daughter is suing to unite her personal identity and her legal identity.
In the USA, reaction to this story has generally run along two lines:
A. "Can you believe they actually have laws telling you what you can name your own kids?"
B. "Seems to me we could use some rules like that, with the kind of crazy names some parents use here!"
The two responses above may seem opposite, but they both grow out of the same fundamental worldview. Both assume that baby name choices belong to parents, and are a matter of personal expression. They differ only in how they would deal with the extremes of taste.
This view of naming is far from universal. Around the world and across the centuries, baby names have been selected in many different ways representing diverse societal values. In some cultures, babies' names follow an established pattern of family namesakes. For instance, the first son is expected to be named for the father's father, the second son for the mother's father, etc. In other cultures, a religious leader chooses a name that is auspicious or will set the child on a righteous path. Still others rely on astrology or numerology to match names to children.
Even in countries where parents choose names to suit their personal tastes, rules are often put in place to assure that the parents' choices are consistent with priorities of the broader society. Religious restrictions are common, requiring, for instance, that all baby names be chosen from a roster of saints. Some laws also require linguistic purity, allowing only names in the native tongue. (Linguistic /cultural preservation can be a sensitive issue for small nations pressed by globalization.)
In other cases the name requirements are defined negatively, by what is not allowed. For instance, Denmark rejects baby names that resemble corporations (sorry, Herr Lego), and many countries screen for names that are judged unsavory, undignified, or likely to cause the child embarrassment. These rules are intended as safeguards for a vulnerable population. You wouldn't let a parent put an infant in a car without a safety seat, so why would you allow parents to expose their kids to the emotional danger of a socially unacceptable name?
For a close-up, let’s take a look a Portugal, which is obliging enough to publish its list of accepted and rejected names. Here’s an excerpt from the very long document:
Note that names are designated for a particular sex, and may even be permitted only as a secondary element, rather than a full given name. Note, also, the rejection of Geronimo, which is a saint’s name and a form of Jerome. Portugal requires names to be traditional, Christian, and Portuguese. The only accepted spelling is the Portuguese Jeronimo. (These rules may sound restrictive today, but at the time they were introduced they must have felt like wild abandon for Portuguese parents. In a traditional Portuguese community, it was up to the parish priest to assign baby names during baptism ceremonies.)
You probably don't agree with all of the various rules and criteria I’ve described. Some of the traditions, especially those that take names out of parents’ hands, may seem utterly foreign. Yet I’ll bet you can understand and even appreciate most of the impulses behind the different approaches. Iceland, for instance, is trying to preserve its national heritage and protect children from ridicule. And what could be more natural for Tibetan Buddhist parents than asking the Dalai Lama to choose the right name for their child?
In fact, if you think about your own naming process, you may find that you’ve weighed similar considerations yourself:
How does this name fit with our cultural heritage? With our faith?
How do we honor the people who have helped make us who we are?
Will this name provoke negative reactions or expose my child to teasing?
What name has auspicious meanings and associations, to give my child the best possible start in life?
Perhaps, then, the freedom to name isn’t simply a lifting of restrictions. It’s a shifting of responsibility, requiring each family to determine its own naming values and priorities. L’etat, c’est nous.