What’s In A Name?

baby_names.jpgApparently, much more than most people probably assume. In An Anthropology of Names and Naming (Cambridge Univ. Press 2006), the various contributors examine, through methods of comparative ethnography, the politics, power, symbolism, and expression of naming and being named (or in some cases de-named). As the authors observe, names serve a variety of purposes. States, of course, use them for a variety of regulatory functions (birth certificates, licenses, permits, tax forms). Name-givers choose names that are descriptive of persons, relations, geography, or religion. Contra J.S. Mill, names are hardly “meaningless markers.”

In the United States, names are chosen for various reasons — often for their religious or kinship significance, to express emotions like “Joy” or “Hope,” to make a cultural statement, or simply because they are trendy. Things are quite different in other places and cultures. As reported here, in Zimbabwe names are often chosen to convey specific meaning. Thus, one will find names such as Trymore, Lovemore, Learnmore, Justice, Honour, Trust, Knowledge, Oblivious, Wind, Wedding, Funeral, Rain, and even Hatred. Have-a-Look Dube is apparently a famous footballer in Zimbabwe. In one family, the last of 13 children was named “Never Trust A Woman” — apparently to express doubts about paternity. As recently reported here, states sometimes take more than a bureaucratic interest in the names bestowed upon citizens. A recent bill proposed in the Venezuala National Assembly would have effectively limited parents of newborns to a list of 100 names chosen by the government (the proposal failed to advance). The purpose? According to sponsors, the list was intended to “preserve the equilibrium and integral development of the child” by preventing parents from bestowing names that open the child to ridicule, are difficult to pronounce in Spanish, or generate doubts as to the child’s gender. Examples of purportedly offending names include Haynhect, Olmelibey, Yan Karll, and Udemixon. Meanwhile, among the members of the National Assembly are Jennifer Bravo Quevedo, Earle José Herrera Silva, and Grace Nagarith Lucena Rosendy (the bill would not have been retroactive). Some Venezuelan names — e.g., Kennedy, John Wayne, Pavel, Ilich — reflect historical and cultural ties . In the voter registry, one can find as many as 60 Hitlers; eight Hochiminhs, among them Hochiminh Jesús Delgado Sierra; and six Eisenhowers, including Dwight Eisenhower Rojas Barboza.

The Venezuela bill raises the question whether the state might have some legitimate interest in the process of naming. In the United States, of course, conceptions of fundamental parental and other constitutional rights would preclude such governmental limitations on naming (which does not, in any event, appear to present any social or other problem in need of correction). But surely, many of the names above are likely to cause confusion, taunting, and perhaps other harms to the child. One editorialist likened some of the Zimbabwean names to “a form of child abuse.” That seems a touch overblown. The right of naming belongs ultimately to the family or other kinship structure, and ought not to be dictated by the state in any respect. Still, it is important to exercise special care with regard to an act as significant to personhood and identity as naming. As ethnographers have shown, that act reflects on parent as well as child. We can only hope that namers in all cultures choose well and wisely the “proper” name for their children.

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8 Responses

  1. greglas says:

    Tim — you might find this paper interesting (by Ann Bartow)

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=981199

  2. A says:

    You might also be interested in this website:

    http://thebabynamewizard.ivillage.com/parenting/

  3. greglas says:

    And while we’re at it, you also might like this book.

  4. Tim – government name registries apparently active in a number of Western European countries, including Germany, France, and Belgium. Jim Whitman’s “Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity Versus Liberty,” 113 Yale LJ 1151, 1216-18 (2003) discusses a case from Belgium of a couple that wanted to name their son “Anakin” and lost, with child named “Dorian” by the state instead. Neil

  5. Tim Zick says:

    Neil —

    Thanks — really interesting piece on privacy; looks like some countries (e.g., France) are tinkering with their registry laws. But elsewhere, it seems you have a right to a name –but not any name. I think the ethnographers are onto something, in the sense that this issue goes much deeper than legal conceptions of privacy (and speech).

    By the way, I had read some time ago that David had fallen out of favor in the U.K, and that Mohammed (various spellings) was on the rise.

    Frank —

    Thanks for the links. I had forgotten about the “baby branding” reports. My favorite “disputed” name would have to be “Metallica” (Scandanavia, I think).

    Tim

  6. Stephen Aslett says:

    Though some U.S. courts recognize that parents have a fundamental right to name their children, others don’t. See Henne v. Wright, 904 F.2d 1208, 1214 (8th Cir. 1990) and Brill v. Hedges, 783 F.Supp. 333, 339 (S.D. Ohio 1991) (“[T]his Court agrees with the reasoning of the Eighth Circuit in Henne that, while parents have an important interest in naming their children, this interest does not rise to the level of a fundamental right.”).

    I could see a U.S. court striking down a statute mandating a specific list of names like the Venezuela bill, but it’s a closer question whether a court would invalidate a more narrowly tailored naming statute proscribing, say, “obscene” names or numbers as names.

  7. Stephen Aslett says:

    Though some U.S. courts recognize that parents have a fundamental right to name their children, others don’t. See Henne v. Wright, 904 F.2d 1208, 1214 (8th Cir. 1990) and Brill v. Hedges, 783 F.Supp. 333, 339 (S.D. Ohio 1991) (“[T]his Court agrees with the reasoning of the Eighth Circuit in Henne that, while parents have an important interest in naming their children, this interest does not rise to the level of a fundamental right.”).

    I could see a U.S. court striking down a statute mandating a specific list of names like the Venezuela bill, but it’s a closer question whether a court would invalidate a more narrowly tailored naming statute proscribing, say, “obscene” names, overly long names, or numbers as names.