Seeking the Freedom to Name

Jan 9th 2013

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.

Comments

1
January 10, 2013 2:24 PM

I wondered how you were going to take this on.  I knew the moment I saw the news article that it would show up here.

 

I think most Americans forget how very pluralist America is and that it's been that way for a very long time.  You can't make a list of Acceptable American Names because no one will agree on what tradition/nationality/religion/etc. to draw from.  European nations, though, are centuries, if not millenia, older and have relatively fixed histories and populations.  Plus, in an area where Those People We Don't Like didn't live all that far away it made sense to decree your team loyalty, so to speak, by holding that more tightly to national identity.  

2
January 11, 2013 4:53 AM

Hey, I've been following this blog for almost a year now and finally decided to sign up!

About Portugal(my country):

As far as I'm aware the names do have to be portuguese, but I don't recall seeing anything about christian, in fact I'm pretty sure that since 1974 openly religious names(at least openly christian names) are not allowed as first names, only as middle names. By this I mean names like Conceição, Luz and things like that (not Maria João and Pedro, obviously).

I can't access the full list right now, but I can comment on that little excerpt, in particular on those three names that were not accepted.

Germina is a form of the verb germinar(to germinate) so at least from the State's point of view it would something like calling someone (she) Germinates.

Germinal I have frankly never heard of before.

Gerónimo is, as you say, a matter of spelling. The official portuguese spelling is Jerónimo.

The spelling thing is getting a good deal more flexible, especially due to the influence of Brasil and the African nations that speak portuguese.

I think that if that case had been in the news more the prevalent reaction would probably have been B.

 

3
January 11, 2013 6:08 AM

Thank you for taking on this topic in such a respectful way. I am from a country that limits certain name choices on the grounds that they are demeaning for the child and I've had the type of horrified "reaction A" you described ("Can you believe they actually have laws telling you what you can name your own kids?") from Americans when I talked favorably of the idea of protecting children from their own parents in some circumstances.

I get that it's a touchy subject where parents' individual freedom clashes with the (perceived) interest of the child. Also, there is certainly an argument to be made along the lines of allowing more diverse names so that in time those names become more socially acceptable and thus the issue of names being demeaning for the child resolves itself. However, I do believe that there are cases where a child needs to be protected from its own parents, therefore I really liked your safety seat analogy.

Anyway, thanks again for pointing out the different motivations for limiting name choice without being condescending or downright condemning them without trying to understand the other side of the argument.

4
January 11, 2013 2:18 PM

Germany has at least one similar rule (last I checked) disallowing names that are gender ambiguous. Since my husband is German and I have a lot of German heritage, we opted to hold true to that rule. Though we did give our daughter a gender ambiguous middle name: Riley.

I wonder if there is any way to modify Blaer to make it a diminuitive form. In German, most diminuitive forms take on femanine gender.  I don't know the Icelandic language, though.

I also remember learning about cultures where your given name stayed with you only until maturity, when you earned a new name. I can't think of any off the top of my head. Or maybe I'm mis-remembering fiction as fact.

Regardless, I can understand and empathize with the pros and cons of each of the rules listed.

5
By rfb
January 11, 2013 4:24 PM

Amy E.: This changed just a few years ago (Dec 2008), you are now allowed to give a gender ambiguous first name (though I don't think it happens a lot; it seems to be used mainly for cross-cultural names like Andrea which is regarded as female in Germany and as male in Italy). Before that, a gender ambiguous first name was allowed but had to be accompanied by a second name that was clearly male or female.

In grammar, diminuitive forms always have the neutral gender (der Hans, das Hänschen; die Liese, das Lieschen); but the diminuitive form of a male name is of course still a name for males. 

6
January 20, 2013 7:38 PM

I've always come down on the "A" side of this issue, but your post has made me think about how it really is a unique and difficult problem when it comes to "freedom" and that it depends on lot on your perspective of whose rights you are talking about. Newborn babies cannot consent to any name, so the responsibility has to lie somewhere. They have to be called something, at least until they are old enough to potentially consent to something (else?) for themselves. But that original "something" usually sticks for life (with some possible exceptions, as Amy E. pointed out).

At least in the U.S., with respect to the A-B debate, it almost comes down to whether you value more the rights of parents to "name their own kids" whatever they want or the rights of newborn babies to be named something that is not offensive/weird/confusing/a cultural misfit/etc. But even if position B wins out, someone still has to make the judgement call of what is appropriate. Even if the two positions "differ only in how they would deal with the extremes of taste," what falls under the header of "extremes of taste" is still subjective. And it's impossible to create a policy that addresses every possible case. How do you have rules that maximize freedom and minimize potential harm to children? Is it worth it? I think I've just talked myself back around to being a solid A again. :P

7
January 31, 2013 12:35 PM

Yahoo posted an article this morning saying that the Icelandic high court has allowed Blaer her name, citing human rights laws and a constitutional right to a name: http://news.yahoo.com/icelandic-girl-wins-her-given-name-112518070.html

8
March 24, 2014 4:23 PM

I get that it's a touchy subject where parents' individual freedom clashes with the (perceived) interest of the child. Also, there is certainly an argument to be made along the lines of allowing more diverse names so that in time those names become more socially acceptable and thus the issue of names being demeaning for the child resolves itself. However, I do believe that there are cases where a child needs to be protected from its own parents, therefore I really liked your safety seat analogy.

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