The Difficulty of Naming German Babies
Last night while I was sleeping, I dreamt. In this dream I was in a place where sleep was regulated; there was an official list of all the dreams that people were allowed to dream. There was also a list of dreams that people were specifically not permitted to dream and a corresponding paragraph written as to why the council of sleep had made this decision about that dream. These rejected dreams were now illegal
If you wanted to dream about something that was not on the master list of approved dreams, you had to fill out a special application. The procedure often took quite some time, so most people just opted for the more common dreams on the list – why complicate matters?
When I woke up I was amazed and amused by this dream – not so much for its content in and of itself, but for what it said about how much my brain had been struck by what I had learned about the day before.
I heard from a German friend of mine that in Germany people are not allowed to just name their children whatever they want. There is a book called the “International Manual of First Names” containing all the names a parent can choose from to legally name their children. If you want to name your child something that is not on the list you have pay for an application that must then be sent to the Standesamt, the German civil registration office, for approval.
There are certain rules you must follow if you want your name to pass. For example:
- Names must indicate the sex of the child. If a first name is used as both a girl and boy’s name, it must be followed by a second first name that is clearly gender-descriptive. Example: names like Jessie, Dominique, Erin, Robin or Andrea (which is usually a girl’s name in the US and in Germany but a boy’s name in Italy), must be followed by a second name that is blatantly male or female.
- Names from other languages are allowed, but must be common names somewhere in the world. When applications for names from other cultures that are not already on the list are made, the Standesamt calls foreign embassies to verify that in fact this is a normal name in another country and that it is gender specific.
- You cannot name your child after a product. Recent requests for Ferrari, Porsche and Pepsi-Cola were rejected, however Pepsi-Carola was approved as a girl’s name – the council apparently decided this was technically not a product name. You are also not supposed to give children place names (so no babies named Berlin or Seattle). The Standesamt however has been known to make exceptions, for example the name Dakota was approved, for although it is a place name, they argued that the “a” on the end of the name made it sound like a girl’s name. The same argument was made for Lafayette.
- You are not allowed to name a child after a last name, like Shakespeare, Einstein, Lincoln or Obama. However the council can bend this one on occasion, as there are certain names with a precedent of being both first and last names, for example Martin, Davy or Christie. Recently the name Anderson was approved after a lengthy and bitter appeals process.
- You may not name your child “evil” names. So no baby Satans or Hells or Beelzebubs. You could arguably name a baby Judas if you were give it a second name to distinguish this baby from Judas Iscariot. Jihad was recently approved as a name after a dramatic legal dispute. The Standesamt’s rejections were overcome in the end due to the political incorrectness of suggesting this Islamic concept was “evil.”
- You also may not give your child an excessive number of names. The longest name yet to be approved was 5 first names. However hyphenated names count as one name, so you could hypothetically fit 10 names in disguised as five if you really, really wanted to – for example: Sophia-Marie Jessica-Alba Angelica-Elizabeth Patricia-Marissa Emily-Amanda, might be deemed, legally speaking, an acceptable first name for a baby girl.
A name also must not endanger the “well-being of the child.” This is where the rules get particularly murky. The Standesamt individually goes over names that raise red flags as potentially damaging to a child and eventually makes a legal verdict.
Given the horrors some children suffer through when they have names deemed humorous by their peers, perhaps a BIT of regulation is not a bad thing. However the thing about the Standesamt that I find so interesting and so hilarious is how seemingly arbitrary so many of the rulings on these names are. Yes, some babies have been protected from some pretty absurd names. However some names that I think are kind of cool and interesting have been rejected, while an equal number of pretty silly names have been accepted. It all seems to depend on the bias of the folks inside the Standesamt and the vague, and bizarre arguments they end up making either for or against. This is bureaucracy at its most hilarious, yet (relatively) harmless.
A German couple who wanted to honor their favorite actress, Whoopi Goldberg, by naming their child Whoopi, had their application rejected because, among other things, the name resembles the English expression ‘making whoopee.’ I sincerely doubt German schoolchildren would be familiar with this expression, however the name was deemed inappropriate.
The name ‘Calotta’ was rejected because it was too similar to the French word ‘calotte,’ which means cap. Huckleberry was rejected because it was considered “strange,” and because Huckleberry was deemed by the Standesamt to be an outsider in Mark Twain’s novels, and therefore not an appropriate basis for a namesake.
The Standesamt ruled the names ‘Legolas’ and ‘Nemo’ were acceptable baby boy names. Tiger has been rejected as a first name, but recently a baby girl was allowed to be called Emma Tiger because the famous German actor Til Schweiger named his own daughter that in 2002 (which he was only able to do because she was born in Los Angeles), so the Standesamt ruled that the name has gained public recognition and therefore public acceptance and would no longer pose a threat to the well-being of a child.
Here is a quick reference of recent decisions for you in case you are considering having a baby in Germany and you’d like a bit of guidance.
Names recently allowed (most of these were okayed exclusively for one gender):
Emilie-Extra * Birkenfeld * Domino Carina * Speedy Biene * Prestige * Fanta * Godot * Ineke * Dior * Gor * Adermann * Julius Caesar * Galaxina * Cosma-Schiwa * Winnetou * Jazz * Kiana Lemetri * Jesus * Büb * Lynik * Wanek * Michael Cougar * Claus-Maria * Lafayette * Pebbles * Latoya * Tanisha * Cheyenne * Chelsea * Ibanez Sophie * Bo * Laurence * Alisha * Uragano * Mikado * Sweer * Johannes-Marie * Merle * Raven * Maha * River * Roi * Gerrit * Alke * Singh * Sundance * Tjorvven * Ogün * Leines * Luc * Mienaatchi * Beke * Mete * LouAnn * Emanuele * Pumuckl * Kolle * Mercedes *
Names recently rejected (some because they inappropriate for a certain gender, others because it was decided they were inappropriate altogether):
Berlin * Grammophon (Gramophone) * Hanuta * Crazy Horse * Porsche * Champagne * Puhbert * Tom Tom * Holgerson * Rosa (as a middle name for a boy) * Schmitz * Holderson * Lindbergh * Ronit * Lord * Lenin* Navajo * La Toya * Sputnik * Stone * Schroder * Jenevje * Micha (as the only first name for a boy) * Josephin * Rosenherz * Ogina * Heydrich * Megwanipiu * Marey * Bodhi * Jona * Pfeffeminze (Peppermint)* Borussia * Noah ben Abraham * Mechipchamueh * Venus (as a second name for a boy) * Cezanne * Schmitz *Moewe* Zooey * Kiran * Cezanne * Frieden-Mit-Gott-Allein-Durch-Jesus-Christus (Peace-With-God-Alone-by-Jesus-Christ) * Pushkin * Cain * McDonald * Simona (for a boy) * Woodstock* StorenFried * Agfa * Pillula * The symbol Pi
As someone with an unusual birth name, I really believe in the right to give one’s child an interesting, unique name. So when I heard about this book of names I was momentarily appalled – in my American-ness as much as in my unique-named-ness, I hated the idea of so much state control that the government could actually tell you what is right or wrong as a name for your own child.
After all, I love having a unique name. It’s difficult for me to imagine what it’s like to have a name that lots of other people have, because for me my name has always been so deeply, utterly personal. In fact it’s pretty weird to think that somewhere out there, there probably are a handful of other Pacificas. I am so accustomed to being the one and only person with my name around me, that a bit of my brain would shatter if I ever met another one 😉
So I think unique names are great, and I will probably come up with some strange ones for my list of potential names when I have my own children.
HOWEVER. All this business about creative freewill gets quite foggy for me when it turns out so very many people have such horrible taste and are willing to give truly ridiculous names to their children for the sake of a good laugh. In reading up a bit on “unique” baby names, I have learned that “creativity” is certainly not always a good thing (especially when it comes to naming defenseless, vulnerable little newborns who have absolutely no say in the matter and will just have to live with the choice you make).
You’ve probably already heard about plenty of celebrity babies with interesting names: Audio Science (Son of actress Shannyn Sossaman), Bluebell Madonna (Daughter of Singer Geri Halliwell), Daisy Boo (Daughter of chef Jamie Oliver), Pilot Inspektor (Son of actress Beth Riesgraf and actor Jason Lee), Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (Daughter of television presenter Paula Yates and Singer Michael Hutchence), Dixie Dot (Daughter of television presenter Anna Ryder Richardson), God’Iss Love Stone (Daughter of Singer Lil’Mo), Jermajesty (Son of Singer Jermaine Jackson), Fifi Trixibell (daughter o Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, also parents to Peaches and Pixie), Sage Moonblood ( Son of Sylvester Stallone and Sasha Czack), Moxie CrimeFighter (Daughter of Penn Jillette (also father to Zolten)), Satchel (Daughter of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee), Rocket (Son of Robert Rodriguez (also father to Racer, Rebel, Rhiannon, and Rogue), Tu Morrow (Daughter of Rob Morrow), Bogart Che Peyote (Son of David “Puck” Rainey), et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
You may, from this list, be under the impression that the US penchant for naming children somewhat ridiculous things is isolated to the rich and famous. It turns out that people all over the US have a great fondness for bizarre names, pun names, joke names, and every other variety of bad names that make the above listed names seem within the realm of normal.
Through studying the US census, Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback put together a list of 2000 of some of the very worst names given to children in the US.
Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered names like Monster Moor, Goblin Fester, Cheese Ceaser, Leper Priest, Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, Nice Deal, Butcher Baker, Lotta Beers, Emma Royd, Post Office, Good Bye, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, and variety of spinoffs of Ima Hogg (like Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).
Matthew Rayback on the genesis of their book :
In the beginning, the idea for the book came from a group of names collected by the hard-working digitizers and indexers at Ancestry, who keep a running list of funny things they see in their work.
But from there, the project took us down a slippery slope of madness and confusion. Why would anyone name their child Hell Grimes? Or Lucifer Carmendo? Take the name Title Page. Or how about Magenta Flamingo? Ghoul Nipple? Mann Pigg? The list goes on and on. And on. Mary A. Belcher. Deuteronomy Temple
…The census changed the way I saw the world: partway through the project, we gave up on the list and started just thinking of any topic we could. Clothing? Try these names on for size: Shirt Duggan, Fedora Spurlock, or Socks Brockington. How about numbers? We found every number from one to twenty, by tens to a hundred, and thousand, million, billion, and infinity—all as first names. Hungry? Have a sandwich with Sandwich Green, Hoagie Hoagland, Mayo Head, or Tuna Fish. And keep in mind that almost every first name in this book shows up multiple times.
After a while, we were more surprised by what we didn’t find than what we did. Take, for example, the seven deadly sins: we found 149 people named Lust, seventy named Greed (with forty-two named Avarice), twelve named Sloth, twenty-four named Wrath, seventeen named Envy, and 830 named Pride. But for some reason, there was no one named Gluttony. So it’s okay to name your kid Wrath Gordon or Envy Burger, but not Gluttony? (Although I think Envy Burger is a good substitute.)
Today, I can’t go anywhere without wondering if the things I see will show up in the census…”
I don’t think the heart of the problem of these horrendous names are the names themselves, but rather bad parenting… and bad parenting is not for the most part regulable, even in Germany. While it is distressing to think about what kind of parent would name their child Ima Hooker or Leper Priest, the name on its own may not be as harmful to children as the German government suspects it is. In fact I expect that their name will be the least of their problems if they have parents like that.
For their book Sherrod and Rayback ended up interviewing American adults who grew up with names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Happy Day, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry, with surprising results. They found that on the whole folks with these sorts of names were actually quite proud of their names and happy to be unique.
According to the results of these interviews and a number of recent psychological studies, strange and silly names don’t have as much of a negative impact as once was thought. When people have weird names and don’t do as well in life as people with normal names, the causal relationship to the effect of name itself is weak.
In a study by psychologist Martin Ford, an assistant dean at George Mason University in Virginia, Ford found no correlation between the popularity or social desirability of a given name and academic or social achievement. “This doesn’t mean that a name would never have any effect on a child’s development,” he explained. “But it does suggest that the probability of a positive effect is as large as that of a negative effect. It also suggests that a name is unlikely to be a significant factor in most children’s development.”
I still lean towards trusting Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein over the the German Standesamt on this one…
“And he said, “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”
If you like this post, here are some other posts you might like:
On the attitude problem of the French-
On random stuff from the Czech Republic:
On American vs. British eating habits: