For American parents, the right to choose your own baby's name seems fundamental. In fact, more and more parents view the naming process as an act of creative self-expression. Many invent new names, adopting common words or combining the two parents' names into a novel creation. The name becomes a family fashion accessory. And why not?
In much of Europe, they'll tell you why not: because the name isn't yours, it's the baby's. You're just assigned as a trustee to handle an unborn individual's affairs. Just as it seems obvious to Americans that parents should have free reign, it's obvious to many Europeans that the government has an obligation to look out for the well-being of the helpless by reviewing name choices. Consider it an extension of safety laws requiring special car seats or blood tests for infants. The government rejects names it deems unsafe to a child's psyche.
Regulations vary from country to country, but the emphasis is on maintaining the traditional boundaries of names. Parents can't routinely use a boy's name for a girl, turn a surname into a first name, or choose any name likely to elicit incredulous stares. The International Herald Tribune recently profiled Denmark's especially restrictive naming regulations:
"People expecting children can choose a pre-approved name from a government list of 7,000 mostly West European and English names - 3,000 for boys, 4,000 for girls. A few ethnic names, like Ali and Hassan, have recently been added. But those wishing to deviate from the official list must seek permission at their local parish church, where all newborns' names are registered. A request for an unapproved name triggers a review at Copenhagen University's Names Investigation Department and at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which has the ultimate authority."A "Names Investigation Department" may seem like an Orwellian absurdity, but it can also make for a useful thought experiment for prospective parents. Imagine presenting your favorite baby name to a review committee. Would it pass muster? And if not, why not? Is being different really a virtue unto itself?
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. Perhaps you heard? Perhaps, in fact, you heard about this from half a dozen sources? Perhaps you even gathered with friends to giggle over the name?
Young Apple was born in May and captured headlines around the world. The internet teemed with messageboard discussions, athrill with horror over her name. Here at baby name central, I fielded a flood of messages about it. Yet the odd truth is: Apple isn't that odd a name.
In the months leading up to Apple's arrival, other celebrities welcomed children with names like Banjo, Lucky, and Pilot Inspektor, to no fanfare whatsoever. Meanwhile, names like Genesis, Serenity and Miracle rank among America's top 500 girl's names. So why do we pick on Apple?
My guess is, because it's easy. Apple is disarmingly unpretentious, the "Jane" of weird names. A baby called Persimmon or Tamarind would be a tougher target..."maybe," you'd think, "I just don't get it." You'd start to feel a little uneasy, and decide to disregard the name as "a Hollywood thing." But Apple, we all get. Its weirdness is completely accessible and unguarded, a clear and easy target. And perhaps for that reason, I feel the urge to protect it. For what it's worth, I think the name Apple is rather sweet. And I like Jane, too.
It's no secret that a popular tv series can launch the popularity of a name. The all-time champion, by my reckoning, is "Bewitched." During its eight-year run, that beloved suburban-sorceress sitcom launched three names with lasting star power: Samantha, Darren and Tabitha. Samantha in particuar has become such a modern classic that it's hard to remember the name was virtually unknown before Elizabeth Montgomery brought it to twinkling life.
One contemporary heir to the naming throne shares a lot in common with "Bewitched." Try a charming suburban blonde, struggling each week to smoothe over trouble caused by pesky supernatural forces.
When "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" premiered in 1997, the character names Willow and Xander were completely off the radar as baby names. But by the show's final year in 2003, Willow was the 530th most popular name for American girls. And Xander checked in at #237 for boys, ahead of such familiar favorites as Gregory, Martin and Scott.
Both shows took place in parallel universes, where life was full of the unexpected and unusual names wouldn't cause any raised eyebrows. (Who cares that your mother-in-law is named Endora, you've got bigger problems, she turned you into a goat.) The more real-world the show's setting, the less likely it will spawn hot new names. "Dynasty" was a huge name influence: Blake, Krystle, Alexis, Fallon. But "E.R."? Forget it.