In my last column I looked into a friend’s wacky baby-naming. As it turns out, the degree of freedom we enjoy here in the States with regards to baby names is not shared internationally. Naming laws abound worldwide: France, Poland and New Zealand are just a few countries that have laws on the books.
In Germany, the first name must indicate the baby’s sex–I’m not sure what they’d do with a name like mine, and who decides on which side a name like “Jamie” falls. Additionally, it mustn’t affect them negatively, which strikes me as pretty open-ended. What name can’t be turned into an insult with the creative genius that is elementary-age playground cruelty? Also, no last names as first names and no objects or products– Gwyneth’s Apple is out, as would be Madison and Taylor, two favorites here in the U.S. An office handles the process and if your choice is rejected you may appeal it, but they have the final say and it comes with a fee. On the upside, they have a naming guide you can pick from to make it easy.
In Sweden, the naming laws were originally an attempt to keep the common folk from naming their children like royals, but nowadays the law reads, “First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.” Interestingly, they think naming kids Lego is no problem. But be careful with what you choose because if you want to change your name, you still have to keep the old one as part of it and you only get to change it once.
Other parts of Scandinavia are even stricter. The Danes have a “Law on Personal Names” that leaves parents to choose from a list of only 7,000 pre-approved names. If none of those work, you have to get permission from your church and then the government. Creative spellings are often rejected–Khristofer, I’m looking at you. Of the approximately 1,100 names that are reviewed each year, 15-20% of the names submitted are rejected. Ouch!
In Iceland, if your name’s not on the list, you will have to pay a fee to have it considered and its alignment with Icelandic tradition is part of the test. In most of these countries the names must be grammatically transferable and able to be written in the official tongue, which can make things tough for immigrants. In Norway, even last names have rules attached. If you want to change your last name, you must prove closeness with someone else who already bares the moniker, like a spouse. Certain last names, those with less than 500 people, aren’t up for grabs at all. The Finnish have the most fun incentive program, with each day of the calendar associated with a particular name, so that along with a birthday, most people have a “name day” to celebrate. More carrot, less stick.
Generally speaking, the European laws can be categorized as either protecting traditional names or attempting to prevent offensive, inappropriate or embarrassing choices. The big Asian powers seem more interested in how one’s name relates to others. Chinese names have to be readable by scanners used on the national ID cards, and since only 13,000 of the 70,000 Chinese characters are in the computer, folks are stuck with just those. Chinese authorities are even forcing some old people to change their names to fit with the times. In Japan, they have a whole alphabet for names, “name kanji,” and you get to use only those, for easy comprehension by others. Koreans seem to have outgrown the need for law, since they generally stick with one syllable first names and over half the country has the last name–Lee, Kim or Park.
The role of culture in the process of naming is interesting. Here in the U.S., we value freedom of expression and our lack of naming laws reflect that. In Europe, more emphasis is placed on tradition and the maintenance of class. In Asia, the group is prioritized over the rights of the individual. There is no clear right answer. I doubt Americans could stomach governmental interference into something as personal and creative as baby naming and that is why girls named Lexus or Harper Seven exist. If you want to see the worst of baby-naming, the website “Baby’s named a bad, bad, thing” has combed baby-naming bulletin boards for years of bad baby name material. It may even make you reconsider outlawing some.
© 2011 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.