Baby Naming Laws: Grin and “Bjorn” It?

Well, OK, I’ve already broken my rule about spending more than 4 hours on a post. I set out to write about something told to me orally by a usually reliable source, but despite Googling my fingers to the bone I can’t seem to verify it anywhere – at least not online, for free, in a language I can read. However, in my science life I found that we often learn more from a failed experiment than a successful one, and maybe that will happen here too. Readers, please help me if you can!

Established: In some countries – reputedly “free” countries at that – you can’t name your baby just anything you want. You have to choose from an approved list or get an authority, such as a court or a church, to grant an exception. (Some in the U.S., where celebrities have counted on giving their babies weird names as a source of free publicity since the late, celebrated musician Frank Zappa named his first two children “Dweezil” and “Moon Unit,” are appalled by the existence of these laws, possibly because it creates a trade deficit in weird-baby-name jokes).

In question: Whether Norway has recently dropped some extremely traditional names, such as “Bjorn” (which means “bear”) from the approved list. Can anyone tell me whether this is or isn’t true (and preferably supply a reference)?

Names, as a subset of languages, can become a type of cultural property after they are handed down for generations. When laws restrict the range of possible baby names, the names on the approved list are generally traditional (at least in the culture that got to make up the list), so they help preserve that aspect of the culture. When the lists are too short or biased in favor of the country’s majority culture, the laws can also act to suppress the naming traditions of other cultures whose members live in the jurisdiction, such as immigrants and resident cultural minorities. Because of this side effect, human-rights organizations have called for – and achieved – reforms in some countries’ personal naming laws. Some of these countries also have laws that prohibit people from being “known by” any name but their legally recognized one. Probably intended to deter the use of aliases for criminal purposes, this type of law can incidentally lead to hassles with trademarks, a type of intellectual property.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have this type of personal naming law. So do Germany, Portugal, Argentina, and the Mexican state of Chihuaua, among others. The general class of personal-name legislation usually began by regulating surnames to make things easier for record-keepers in central governments. The need was particularly urgent in Scandinavia, where surnames under the Old Norse tradition generally changed with every generation: Frederik’s son Thor was Thor Frederiksson, but his son Olaf was Olaf Thorsson, and so on. (Icelanders still use the Old Norse naming system; Denmark, which otherwise insists on generationally-constant surnames, allows Danish Icelanders an exception which it recently extended to the Faroe Islands). The laws then expanded to regulate the range of legal name-changes so that no one could choose a name that confused, scandalized, or offended local sensibilities; many of the original intended targets were 18th- and 19th-century nouveau-riche suspected of wanting to cadge noble surnames to which they were not entitled.
When the lawmakers in these countries undertook to regulate babies’ given names, their stated intent was noble, if doomed to failure: they sought to cabin parents’ whims in order to spare the innocent children from ridicule. Even parents who were not vain, eccentric, or ignorant might, like cartoon character Homer Simpson, just be a little bit negligent:

Marge (discussing names for their expected first child): How about “Bart?”
Homer: Let’s see (if other children could make fun of it) – “art, Bart, cart, dart, ee-yart” – no, can’t see any problem with that!

The lawmakers’ concerns are not unfounded; a recent real-life example is that of the British parents who now regret naming their son “Drew Peacock” after realizing belatedly that it could be pronounced Droopy – well, you get the idea. However, anyone who has observed children at any length knows that they can find a way to make fun of ANY name. Only if children were all identically named, like newly-introduced hamsters sprinkled with baby powder to make them smell the same and lack motivation to fight, would they be unable to mock each other’s names and have to fall back on mocking other things, such as clothing, speech, and physical characteristics instead.

Parents who choose “off-the-list” names, even trying to go through the approved channels, are in for some headaches. A Norwegian mom was jailed in 1995 for refusing to change her son’s name or pay a fine. A Swedish couple had to go back to court when the Tax Board appealed a lower court’s approval of “Metallica” as their daughter’s name. In some countries, a child needs a legally approved name before being allowed to travel abroad with the family or be eligible for government benefits (which, in countries with National Health, can be a significant issue for all except the very wealthy).

Aaanywayyyy. . . Back to the possibly apocryphal story of the new Norwegian personal-name-law amendment. If the story is true, names based on animals are now off the approved list. This would include such traditional and familiar Nordic names as Bjorn (bear), Todd (fox), and Zwi (gazelle). An amendment like this would have an effect very unusual among these laws – to remove from circulation names of long-standing tradition in the culture.

The only online English copy I could find of the Norwegian Act relating to Personal Names generally prohibits names “that may be disadvantageous to those whose names they are.” The approved list was probably a related Regulation, but not available. This version of the Act was apparently annulled in 2002, but I couldn’t find a translated version of the new Act; it reportedly relaxed some of the restrictions on surnames. How it affected first names is unknown; the European Centre fro Minority Issues reported that traditional minority surnames were generally not considered “disadvantageous” under the Act as it was. So, what little I’ve been able to find suggests Norway’s law has been recently liberalized rather than made more restrictive.

Does anyone out there know anything different? If not, I hope this general introduction to personal-name laws has been informative. I may just be spoiled rotten from looking up trade-related laws, which many countries are very happy to put online in several languages because they want the business. As far as I know, Norway isn’t seeking people to move there and have babies, so maybe they figure those laws are better off “out of sight, out of mind.”

8 thoughts on “Baby Naming Laws: Grin and “Bjorn” It?

  1. okay, this is just bizarre. i mean, if it’s true. i mean, yeah, some of the names people foist on their kids are criminal, but making criminals a crime, well…

    sorry, i’ve been reading too much prachett, i think…

  2. I thought you might this interesting too – “Court orders parents to change baby’s name from Friday to Gregory”

    Friday Germano is now Gregory Germano. The change came after an Italian court ordered the 1-year-old boy’s parents to rename him because his birth name, Venerdi, was “ridiculous or shameful.”

    Venerdi means Friday in Italian. It was also the name of a character in Robinson Crusoe.

    “They thought that it recalled the figure of a savage, thus creating a sense of inferiority and failing to guarantee the boy the necessary decorum,” the family’s lawyer, Paola Rossi, tells the Associated Press.

    Here’s the full article:
    http://blogs.usatoday.com/ondeadline/2007/12/court-orders-pa.html

  3. Pingback: ZoeSelina.com » Blog Archive » Apple? Marmalade? Not in Norway, baby!

  4. i was thinking of naming my baby (if male) jesus roscoe and i just thought that maybe jesus(like the arab “savior”) would possibly be illegal
    p.s. i live in america

  5. Pingback: The Fuss in a Name | Fred Nyamhunga

    • You’re right – I’d heard of Israelis named Zwi. Turns out it is a boy’s name in Hebrew, related to “Zac” and “Zeus.” I’m not sure if the Scandinavians, Germans, Polish and Dutch adopted it from the Hebrew – possible, since all those cultures did a lot of far-flung trade and met people from all over – or whether it’s one of those “the human mouth can only make so many different sounds” kind of coincidences.

      Couple of links: http://babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com/meaning_of_Zwi.html, http://www.babynamespedia.com/meaning/Zwi/m

      Also the sites say it’s sometimes used for girls as well as boys, which was a new one on me. It seems like such a happy sound: Zwiiii!

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