You may have heard the recent news story about the young Egyptian man who named his firstborn daughter “Facebook” in honor of the site’s role in his country’s revolution. Whether you think it’s a heartwarming gesture or a horrible idea, it’s important to realize that different countries have different laws about what you can legally name your child. The point of these laws is to balance the parents’ wishes with the well-being of the child, who cannot express approval or disapproval of their parents’ choice.
There aren’t really any US laws in place restricting what you can name your child, resulting in a few memorable names like “Moxie CrimeFighter” alongside the more standard names like “Jacob” and “Isabella”. However, if a child’s name is particularly offensive, embarrassing, or potentially damaging to his or her reputation, Child Protective Services may be summoned. Not to worry, even if your name’s not particularly outrageous or embarrassing, you can change your legal name to match how you feel about your identity.
Other countries are not so lenient. In Sweden, laws intended to prevent commoners from giving their children noble names also restrict parents from naming their children after, among other things, certain famous figures (ex: Superman) and single letters (ex: A). Individuals can, however, change their last name to something more unusual if they have an extremely common last name.
In New Zealand, judges have cracked down on strange names that could cause offense to a reasonable person or are unreasonably long, saying that the names show a lack of judgment on the parents’ part and could be socially harmful to the child.
Until 2005, French children were required to take the last name of their fathers. Then again, unlike in Germany where it’s required for the child’s name to indicate his or her gender, French couples have more freedom with gender associations— Anne was a traditional boy’s name and is still used by some catholic families.
Denmark has some of the strictest laws on personal names. Parents must choose names from a registry of 7,000 pre-approved names, and if their desired name isn’t on the list they must get special permission from a local church and have it reviewed by government officials. Like in Germany, names must indicate gender, but further restrictions apply: last names can’t be used as first names and creative spellings of common names are rarely accepted.
For a small island nation like Iceland, the retention of culture is a key concern. Icelandic names must be gender-specific, spelled with the Icelandic alphabet, fit grammatically into the language and tradition, and finally not be embarrassing to the child. Furthermore, to gain Icelandic citizenship, you must adopt an Icelandic name— the composer Vladimir Ashkenazy is an exception.
Character-based languages have different limitations. Japanese children receive one given or first name and one surname at birth, and it’s nearly always obvious which of these two is which, since characters for the child’s given name must be chosen from a couple thousand pre-approved official “name kanji”. The intended result is that one can easily read and write the names of others. Chinese names must be readable by computer scanners, meaning numbers and non-Chinese symbols are not allowed. The only problem is that not all 70,000+ Chinese characters can be represented on computers, so some people must change their names or live with them being constantly misread.