The Politics of Naming Rights
January 5, 2013 § 4 Comments
Forgive me, but it’s about to get a little opinionated in here. Much has been discussed online over baby name laws the past few days, and I can’t help but weigh in, of course.
Lou at Mer de Noms led me to this fascinating article about a 15-year-old Icelandic girl named Blaer Bjarkardottir. But, since Blaer isn’t on the list of 1,853 accepted names for girls in her native country, all her government forms list her official name as ‘Sturka’ – which means, simply, “girl.” Her mother, Bjork Eidsdottir, picked Icelandic Blaer, which means “light breeze,” inspired by a female Blaer she knew in Iceland in the early 1970s – back when the name had been reportedly acceptable. The priest who baptised Blaer even thought the name acceptable enough, but had to admit his mistake after the fact, negating the legality of the name. Now, Blaer and her mother are suing the Icelandic state for the right to use a name that has a masculine article and was denied by the panel of judges who approve or reject every baby name, or adult name change, in the country. Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, China, and other countries have similar processes, a response to parents who have selected names ranging from Anus to Devil and Number 9 Bus Stop to the @ symbol.
My problem with these committees is how fascist they can seem. Sometimes, the opinion may seem a bit outrageous (as it appears Blaer’s name was at one time perfectly acceptable for girls in Iceland, before the committee was formed). And if not outrageous, the notion that one must be named from an approved list of choices, even if that list is almost 2,000 names long, goes too far. These democratic countries are telling their citizens ‘originality be damned.’ They are telling citizens they must conform to the state’s idea of an acceptable personal identity, and that is fairly fascist. By deciding what names are not worthy they’re perpetuating a culture of superiority, which lends itself to the dreaded playground bullying everyone talks about when names are concerned.
I understand that Number 9 Bus Stop is a bad given name. So are swear words or slang insults. I respect the attempts to keep those names from birth certificates. But I have to wonder what happens when it all goes too far, and firmly believe that our opinions or perceptions of far too many words, or names, make these committees way too arbitrary. Why, for example, is Elvis banned in Sweden? Why is a beautiful name with a ‘masculine article’ banned in Iceland? (Iceland, for the record, also bans all C names from Cara to Curver because there is no C in the Icelandic alphabet, although it’s perfectly acceptable for someone like Bjork to sing and write in English using Roman characters.)
The truth is, most parents choose common names for their children, and even kids named @ or Bus Stop are likely go through life with a nickname, or legally change it to something else when they’re older. Most parents have no interest in naming their child Pooface. Parents who choose the name Satania (which has been denied in Iceland for being too close to Satan) might have good reason that is of no business to the government or citizens whom the name will not affect.
This Deadspin article from months ago broke my heart. It was written by a Dad (and men are usually fans of more traditional fare), which flat out refuses to be in any way open-minded about the possibility that the world isn’t cookie-cutter, or that tastes can evolve. I recognize that studies show people with Krazy name spellings tend to be overlooked for job interviews. But why should the government get to decide whether a name is spelled too strangely or not?
I actually tend to fall into the opinion of desiring to see these name committees disbanded, or reduced to an administrative role and nothing more. A number of parents who select truly offensive names are libertarians who actually do so in response to the existence of said committees. Traditional names are certainly on trend again, but they aren’t for everyone, and it’s no one’s right to decide whether or not a name is legally acceptable considering, as this amazing iVillage article points out, kids will be teased no matter what their name. I may not like the idea of using a name like Berretta to honour a handgun, but I never called for government intervention. And if I met someone with such a name, I wouldn’t bully them for it.
The existence of name-approval committees has been defended because children will be teased for terrible names, and defended because certain names are offensive to others. But my parents taught me to understand that if people have a problem with me, that’s a problem that they have. The same can be said about baby names (and was certainly an admitted part of my bias against Berretta; I think Levi Johnson is a famewhore). So if a name offends you, that problem exists within you, and it’s up to you to get over it, as far as I’m concerned.
(As a result of this post, from the new year going forward, name negativity will be very tough to find on this blog, though it’s always been rare. It just isn’t funny, and it doesn’t make you cool, if you have a biting opinion on something that doesn’t even affect your life on a daily basis. I’ll even offer Levi Johnson a mea culpa, and apologize for judging the middle name he picked as glorifying violence, and going out of his way to put his name in the headlines.)
We can certainly claim that parents choose unique names to bring more attention to themselves, and psychologically the argument has merit, but we could also argue that greater harm is done to the child by the judgmental people around them who think that making fun of, or judging, them for their name is either funny or acceptable. You may think you’re doing a “badly named kid” a service, but one day little Breeze Berretta Johnson will Google her name and she’ll probably resent me. One day, little Hashtag Jameson will Google herself and find out just how stupid the world thinks her mother is. It’s not okay to be on the “superior side” when it comes to someone else’s name.
If you’ve made fun of, or judged, a boy named Sue or a girl named Blitzi, if your kids have done it…don’t you think that you’re the problem, and not the other way around?