In an unprecedented move, a Tenneessee judge has, unbidden, ordered parents to change their child's first name based on her personal assessment of taste and appropriateness.
The child and his parents were in court before Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew because of a debate over his surname -- a relatively common point of contention between estranged parents. Yet according to local news reports, the judge took it upon herself to declare the boy's given name unacceptable.
Unlike many other countries, the United States has never restricted given names. Naming freedom is taken for granted by American parents, as a form of freedom of speech. The only demand the government typically places is that the name be a string of letters. (Most would-be *'s, &'s and 33's accept these rulings, but a handful have fought for a word-free identity. During the 1970s, for instance, a man born as Michael Dengler lost a protracted legal battle to change his name to 1069.)
The only case I've found where a U.S. court ruled against a name based on taste was in a child custody dispute. The father in that case objected to the extremely unconventional name the mother had chosen (Weather'by Dot Com Chanel Fourcast). For a judge to step in on her own initiative and declare a name a taste violation is extraordinary.
Judge Ballew objected to the name Messiah on religious grounds. She felt that the name was inappropriate and would give the child trouble in the Christian community, because it is "a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ." Messiah's mother, in statements to the media, made it clear that the name's religious connotations had nothing to do with why she chose it for her son. She just liked how it sounded with her older children's names, and "thought it was unique."
As a layperson with a passing familiarity with American freedoms, I find it hard to picture this ruling, based explicitly on the judge's personal religious beliefs, standing up under appeal. But as a Baby Name Wizard, I see the religious element of the case mostly as a distraction.
I don't view this as a religious issue per se, or just a story of a judge overstepping. This is a bold new shot fired in the name wars. It's a symptom of growing animosity in a culture where naming has fundamentally changed.
As names become more and more creative, and move further and further beyond our national comfort zones, the boundaries of good taste are under debate. That a judge would actually try to "outlaw" a name based on her personal sense of what's suitable is a sign of how strongly people feel about these boundaries. (It's a sign of Judge Ballew's own interest in names that she didn't just reject the name Messiah, but took it upon herself to choose a new name for the child: Martin.)
Many people are applauding the judge for taking action and drawing a line. But if someone else had been in charge of drawing that line -- someone of a different age or cultural perspective -- the same people now applauding would likely be up in arms. Remember, the boy in this story was just one of 762 Messiahs born in the United States last year.
Good luck determining "community standards" in an era when there's no longer such a thing as a "normal" name. Expect more name-based conflicts, misunderstandings and litigation ahead.
The UK has released official baby name statistics for 2012. The top 10 names for boys and girls:
|RANK||BOYS||LAST YEAR||GIRLS||LAST YEAR|
The boys' list shows less change, but the flipping of Jacob and Alfie somewhat tightens the gap between UK and US tastes.
More analysis to come!
I'm a compulsive name shopper. Wherever I go, I keep an eye out for local trends in name-based souvenirs (like [time-warped miniature license plates) -- and in foreign locales, for local baby name books.
Nobody understands the names of a language like a native speaker. But even more than that, good name books can give you a sense of a whole naming culture, and by extension a new window on how people think and live.
Stalking the parenting section of Italian bookstores, I was struck by several name books with a distinctive double flavor. First, they offered scholarly troves of historical information on each name, deeper than you'd find in a practical guide for English-speaking parents. Second, they delved with equal care into fate and fortune: the many possible sources of good luck linked to a name, and the destiny and character the name was expected produce in the child.
[Note: all excerpts below are my own translations, guided by online translation tools. My apologies to the Italian authors for any clumsy interpretations.]
The book Che nome dare al tuo bambino is written by an author whose other books, in multiple languages, cover topics like tarot reading and astral travel. Each of her name entries feaures a "Character and Destiny" section, describing the kind of person and life a name will yield as determined by numerology and astrology. ("Petronilla comes across as an uncommunicative and uncombative woman, in life and love....She will find happiness in marriage.") A "Fortune" section goes on to lay out the name's lucky numbers, days and colors, plus a detailed listing of magical talismans. ("Petronilla may choose a cat's eye stone, a nutmeg or a butterfly...")
The idea that names have divining power is explored in plenty of English books as well, including titles like The Hidden Truth of Your Name and The Art of Baby Nameology. But you'll never find anything in those books to compare to Che nome's "Etymology and History" section:
"Petronilla does not trace back to Peter, as folk etymology wishes (so much so that Santa Petronilla has come to be considered a disciple of Peter, even his daughter), but rather to Petronius, of Etruscan etymology from Petruna, of unknown meaning. The gens Petronia, however, belonged in ancient Rome to the class of the plebeians, and the suffix-onius suggests a toponomous origin..."
Nor do the English "hidden meanings" books delve into a name's place in the roster of saints. Our name authors may seek the significance of names in numerology or astrology, or in the Bible or Catholic traditions, but as a rule the two approaches don't mix. In Che nome, they do. You'll find a listing of saintly name days, patron saints, and more. ("It's said that Saint Petronilla, asked by Count Flacco for her hand in marriage and allowed three days to reflect, donned a hair shirt and stopped eating...")
Another popular Italian name guide, nomi & nomi, is even richer in scholarly background. Despite my near-nonexistent Italian, I plan to keep it handy as a resource on name histories. Yet nomi & nomi also informs us that, for instance, Gervasio's saintly name day is June 19, its sign is Pisces, lucky number 9, lucky color light blue, lucky stone opal, lucky metal mercury, and that "If Gervasio could live a hundred different destinies, he would do it without a second thought...."
That breadth of information is remarkable, and yet it still doesn't cover the subjects I focus on most in The Baby Name Wizard: usage history, cultural connotations, and style. Names are a wide, wide world, in any language.