The Politics of Naming Rights

January 5, 2013 § 6 Comments

(c) AP - Blaer Bjarkardottir, 15, is trying to change name laws in her native Iceland.

(c) AP – Blaer Bjarkardottir, 15, (pictured with her mother, Bjork) is trying to change name laws in her native Iceland, and is willing to take her case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

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?


Tagged: , , ,

§ 6 Responses to The Politics of Naming Rights

  • Daisy says:

    Hello! It’s my first time here (great blog by the way!) and I was directed from Appellation Mountain.

    I hate to disagree with you on my first comment because I think you really do have a great blog, but I disagree. I think you’re looking at this from a perspective of your culture’s and language’s naming traditions rather than Iceland’s culture and naming traditions- parents choose whatever name they like for whatever reason they like. To impede on that DOES mean an infringement on rights. However, the millions of different cultures that have existed over human history have created millions of naming standards.

    For example, the Dobe Ju/’hoansi (one of the tongue click peoples of Southern Africa) have a prescribed method for naming: the firstborn son is named after his paternal grandfather. The next son is named after his maternal grandfather. The third son is named after his father’s oldest brother, then mother’s oldest brother, then father’s next oldest brother, etc etc. Same goes for baby girls with their female relatives. The idea that parents would pick a name just because they like it or even name the child after an out-of-order relative is completely foreign to this culture; it doesn’t happen. There’s no thought put into to the name by the parents and there’s no fuss; you get the name you get and that’s it. This tradition has become so ingrained in the culture that it is now incorporated into their marriage and kinship terms; the language and culture has actually formed around that naming tradition (or perhaps it was the other way around) and being named something other than your appropriate relative’s name would be very confusing for everyone and even change your linguistic relationship with your family members. It would serve no purpose other than to confuse people. This isn’t the society working to infringe rights; the dobe are actually famous for their accepting culture. It’s just that

    There are a lot of reasons besides just the masculinity of the word Blaer that the name would be problematic in the Icelandic language. Icelandic changes depending on the form of the sentence. A command would have a different form of the name than an accusatory sentence, and the name’s form and spelling would also change. As you already know, Icelandic nouns also have genders like in the Romantic languages, and Blaer is masculine. But the rules of changing the name for the type of sentence make this a much bigger grammatical problem than you’d think; the sentence has to be both masculine and feminine at the same time, and it makes it sound wrong and bizarre. Iceland has other foreign naming traditions- they still use patronymic or matronymic surnames- you are Firstname ____dottir if female or Firstname _____sson if male. Even in the phonebook, people are listed by first name rather than last.

    So in my opinion, you can’t look at this case as you would if it happened in the UK, US, Canada, or Australia. There’s simply no comparison- you need to have a total and complete understanding of both the language and the culture before making the judgement that this is “fascist” or an attempt to be culturally superior. It must be looked at within the context of the culture. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is because I’ve never been to Iceland, don’t speak Icelandic, and don’t know the culture. I don’t think anyone except Icelanders can really say how big of a problem this is or what rights it does or does not infringe on.

    Many other cultures have adopted naming traditions like this that are quite foreign to us. That doesn’t mean these governments think they are “culturally superior”- the thousands of Chinese characters really DO cause problems when inputting information into a computer and the complexities of language and culture really can make a name too complicated for use. I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong, but I would be very cautious about condemning this practice before having all of the information.

    I’m sorry again to disagree with you right off the bat but you’ve done a great job with the blog and I’ll definitely continue reading!

    • Please do not apologize! You make some incredibly valid points, and I do not condemn the opinions of others. (And hey, throwing around the term ‘fascist,’ which I stand by in regards to committees, not overarching culture, is a lightning rod, I get that!)

      What I will say about my stance, and Iceland, is the same point I made about the singer Bjork and her songs in English. This is a culture that has accepted the Roman alphabet in certain aspects. And the name Blaer is one that was previously acceptable.

      If a family chooses to follow naming conventions, as the Dobe and many other cultures or people do, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They have every right. What I’m saying, as me, is that if someone chose to buck those conventions, I wouldn’t see a problem with it anywhere in the world. Even if it went against long-held cultural traditions I did or didn’t follow. I get that people would be irked in that community or culture, but I’m calling for more open-minded understanding to naming rights in general, no matter what or where.

      But really, this particular story that singled out Iceland (perhaps unfairly, I digress) was one example towards a wider point about a democratic government’s ‘role’ in naming its’ citizens, and the biases all humans have towards names that leads to the bullying we all fear, yet are 100 per cent responsible for.

      I’m so glad you enjoy the blog and will be back, Daisy! I’ll be very happy to see you around, and I’ll try to be less controversial in future posts 😉

  • The thing about European name lists is that they are an attempt to protect their indigenous culture from the onslaught of globalisation, where everyone must wear Nike, eat at McDonalds, drink at Starbucks, download Lady Gaga from iTunes, watch “Gangnam Style” on YouTube and give their children highly individualised names.

    The fact this family in Iceland are able to appeal against the decision and have the right to argue their case doesn’t sound particularly fascist.

    With New Zealand, their name laws came about almost entirely because of articles in the press, widely published on the Internet, in the vein of “20 Crazy Names from New Zealand and How Stupid Must This Country Be”. Naturally they didn’t want to be an international laughing stock – and with such a small population, those articles were basically identifying the children who were given unique names (an overused expression, but in this case, accurate).

    In regard to not bullying names – I think that parents who choose names like Satan’s Little Helper, Cocaine, Glock, or # for their child’s name knows full well how others are going to react, and no doubt chose the name for the attention it will receive. Presumably the “bullying” is exactly what they want.

    It disgusts me that anyone would use their child’s name for such selfish purposes, (double disgust to anyone who claims it is for libertarian principles – your child is not a bumper sticker) and I think that more than anything else is what offends people.

    You would have to be a massive dirtbag to offload that justifiable scorn onto the child though.

    (Hey don’t try to be less controversial in future – giving up smoking is making your posts really interesting!)

    • You’re absolutely right that the violence factor that makes the textbook definition of fascism what it is is missing from these democratic committees, though I would argue that legislatively stifling any type of creativity, to protect culture or otherwise, is overbearing. I get that American culture is overbearing (and being Canadian, must accept my bias that the only thing that differs us from Americans, culturally, is Francophone heritage).

      And while I don’t disagree AT ALL that parents who choose a baby name like Dirtbag are probably not awesome people, I would still argue that the rest of us do no favours by perpetuating the cycle and making sure that child feels ostracized for that name.

      Basically, my new outlook for the new year is very internal, though controversial as ever 😉 Naming is personal, but so is how positively or negatively we react to people around us. I think I might need a hug or something 😉

  • jiinxsay says:

    Huggie thoughts sending your way!!!!!!
    You are wonderful & I LOVE your blog!!!!!
    I’ve gone thru so many of the “blogroll” crowd -(of which I tried to join, but alas, even though I’ve gathered sooo much information on baby names since I started my online searching 1996, I feel I am knowledgeable enough to be labelled an Onomastician 🙂 my blog wasn’t interesting enough, or maybe because I made 2 of them, one here at WP & one at Blogspot, or perhaps I was more focused on creating them & making them pretty than keeping up with the naming world. At any rate, I was so hurt that I didn’t “fit in” to the “blogroll”, that I just stopped participating.
    I do admit I have deep desire to create sites, I mean, who else do you know who has 7 Livejournals?? I know, currayzee ;), but I do. I create them, stay a bit, then abandon them. Just google the name “Jiinxsay” & there’s like 23 pages of ME… I’m farrr too out there in internet world that i’ll never be able to reel it back in.
    So I just recently started getting back into reading the names on the “blogroll”, as I’m trying to change my whole name. I am finding that the Australian’s have the most unique names (that I like anyway), and I am seriously considering changing my name to Brahminy May Holland. I would explain the meaning behind my names, but that would be an enTIRE different and lengthy post, as this one is, I’m soo sorry, these sites are the only place I can talk about the name change. I don’t have feedback. I should probably find a message board…alas again…
    I have found that your blog is different than many, as you share more of yourself, I mean, I feel like I know you from some of the things you say. And I really like your writing.
    I will most certainly keep reading your blog & perhaps I should go to one of my many Livejournals to talk about what name to choose & how to pare down the 13 middle names I must choose from!
    Thank you for allowing me to post.
    I have to agree, in terms of government dictating naming habits is a bad idea, while I also agree with Matilda about certain countries or groups of people where it has been a certain way forever & to change it would make it confusing or have otherwise negative consequences.
    Ok, back to reading about your next name!
    PS. LOVE Ryker!!! Love it!
    Again, my apologies,
    promise I will Never write such a long post, off topic, etc.
    signed, potential Brahminy May Holland
    (not sure what the rules or fees are here, outside Boston, Mass. USA.

  • jiinxsay says:

    eek!! Oh I am soo terribly sorry for that last completely off-topic post! Reading about the laws again took on a much deeper meaning this time around! I found out that here in Mass the court in Boston, where I was born, didn’t even KNOW how many names one can use in a name change. I was told to call Social Security. The lady had no idea & had to find her supervisor. She told me 16 characters for; 1st, middle, last. WOW, talk about uptight, boo!! California is so easy going, I feel so cheated! I had honored 4 fam members in the name I had chosen, which didn’t end up being Brahminy like I said in last post. I couldn’t believe the beautiful kaleidoscope of names I had so lovingly chosen were absolutely unacceptable!! After carefully choosing my names, my mother lost her closest and dearest friend to cancer (she lived 20 yrs longer than they said). She turned 84 June 1st and died June 4th. I was so moved by the fact that my mother & Nancy friendship had spanned an amazing Seventy years!! I couldn’t even believe what she must have been going thru. This was truly the longest relationship she had ever had. My dad (google Prof. J. Lyell Sanders) was a shy, humble man, who happened to be a Harvard Professor. My mother went to Radcliffe College (that was Harvard for Women), the reason I mention all this, besides pure Love & pride is that dad died after they had 38 years of marriage. So I felt I had to honor this friendship. I decided to “marry” the names; MaryJane & Nancy. I came up with a few & that was part of my beautiful love story of a name. If Bjork can go all the way to the Supreme Court for naming rights, then I can fight Mass law, which is ridiculous. I will ask the judge about the “pursuit of happiness”, that must count for something right? I feel this is important enough that I, even in my sick, weakened state, am determined now, to fight this! Thank God I just read the article, thinking it was my 1st time, till I saw my blabby comment. I can’t Thank you enough for this article, esPECIALLY the second time around! Now I have been Truly Inspired by you! Who are “they” to tell me, that I cannot honor; Beloved dad, uncle, mother’s 70 year friendship? They are WRONG! Their reason?? Hopefully you will get a laugh at their ridiculous reason…..”That’s the amount the computer can handle”….Really??? I’m NOT laughing. I will let you know how it goes, never put it past me to call channel 5 and have them “tell my story”, I would only feel a little guilt at shaming them.
    P.S. My genetic emphysema (Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency) has destroyed my lungs. But! I finally QUIT smoking four and a half months ago! One of the comments mentioned you had also quit, Congratulations! Now I can be on home oxygen, haven’t yet gotten the courage to use portable. Don’t like the idea of looking weak & potential victim-like. Not likely with my linebacker of a daughter.She’s my special girl. Out of 6, she is the one who is staying forever & soon the state will start to pay her for her caring for me full-time 🙂 Well deserved!
    Say a lil prayer, and if you’re not a prayin kind of girl, like me, once in a blue moon! then just think positive thoughts, that Ali can MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN! Thank you for more than you know sweetie.

    Love, Ali aka Jiinxsay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading The Politics of Naming Rights at The Name Station.


%d bloggers like this: