March 2, 2006

Ve haff vays of naming your baby


My sister is having a baby. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a mushy personal post. This is a post about how my sister is not allowed, by law, to choose her own baby's name.

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. She can choose the name, but not completely freely. See, Laura lives in Germany, and under German law the office of vital statistics has the power to veto parents' choices of baby names. "A child's name has to meet two conditions: (1) it must reflect the sex of the child, and (2) it must not endanger the 'well-being of the child.'"

It is little things like this that make me proud to be an American, where it is just taken for granted that the state has no role in micromanaging such intimate decisions in individual lives. No gender-neutral names? Seventy of the most 1,000 most popular baby names in America today would be banned. Admittedly five of those are variations on Jaden, which deserves banishment, but what about the classics: Leslie, Carol... um, Michael? As for the well-being of the child, it's certainly true anyone can name a thousand celebrities who should have thought less about themselves and more about their poor kids, but the issue is still personal responsibility. When the government gets to decide what's unacceptably weird — especially the German government — things get a little dicey, because wouldn't you know it, a lot of those "weird" names just happen to be foreign. And the "protecting the child" excuse falls apart when you find out that German adults can't legally change their name to something unusual, as Kerstin Steinbrecher found out when she wanted to take the last name of her new husband, an American Indian named Walkinstikt-Man-Alone.

That article also cites the case of a Jewish couple who wanted to give their daughter the common Israeli name Jona, but were forced to hyphenate it with Chantel so it would sound less masculine. Now, I'm not saying this was antisemitic, but there's no question that there's uncomfortable historical resonances when people force names on Jews. As The Voluntaryist notes (well, do you trust the MSM for your information?), Jewish surnames originated in the 18th century when European monarchies forbid the tribe's traditional naming conventions.

Jewish tradition dictated a single name, followed by the name of the father (Moshe ben (son of) Shmuel or Simon bar-Jonah). Some Jews were able to meet the new legal requirements by taking occupation surnames (Goldschmidt), cultural names (Levy, from the tribe of Levites), patronymics (Isaacson), place names, or simply ornamental names chosen for their attractiveness (Lilienthal, from the flower).

Being forced to give up Jewish religious traditions in favor of Gentile ones was so offensive that a few Jews managed to register legal names bearing hidden protests. Rabbi R. Mermelstein, rabbinical advisor to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership and author of the "Ask the Rabbi" column, relates, "One of the greatest Talmudic commentators from that period refused 'tzu vehren fargoyisht' (Yiddish-'to become like a Gentile'), so he listed his surname as Schick-an acronym for 'Shem Yisroel Kodesh' (Hebrew-'the name of a Jew is holy')." And yes, its fair to assume his descendents became famous for manufacturing razors.

A Jew of means could purchase (bribe) his way into a "desirable" name. But not all had a choice. Those without money and those who refused to submit to the imposed naming scheme were "punished" with names like Schmaltz, Lumpe, and even the vulgarity, Schmuck.

As long as they remained in their countries of origin many were stuck with those names. But American immigration records reveal that among other freedoms beleaguered Jews sought here was the freedom to rid themselves forever of names like Eselhaupt (ass's head), Kohlkopf (cabbage head or blockhead), and Kanalgeruch (canal stench).

My German Jewish maternal grandfather was given such a name, by the way. Not quite that bad, perhaps. I'd tell you what it is, but you know how credit card companies want your mother's maiden name as a security code? Probably not wise for me to put that out on the Internets. But anyway, back to our worst-case scenario:

The German government did make one exception to its name-changing ban. The Nazi regime required every male Jew without an identifiably Jewish surname to adopt the middle name "Israel" and every such female Jew to adopt the middle name "Sarah." These names were placed on their national identity cards to make it harder for them to evade all the many restrictions imposed on Jews, and in the end, harder to avoid being murdered.

Of course, rigid naming rules isn't a German phenomenon specifically. Lots of European countries have similar rules. Portugal has a forbidden list that includes Mona Lisa, Guevara, Marx, and Lolita. I take that last one personally, and not for the reason you might think. When my wife made up her list of potential names for our spawn, Lolita was actually on it. Yes, I was appalled too, but I'm also glad that we were able to work out our difference without intervention from Lisbon. And the impulse isn't as weird as you might think. According to Name Voyager, Lolita was a mildly popular name for the first half of the 20th century which then soared in popularity in the 1960s, or immediately after picking up its modern connotation.

Full disclosure: alright, alright, my kids ended up with "weird" names. Well, weirdish. Milo has recently crept back into the top 1,000 after peaking at 408 in 1910, and Margalit is common enough in Israel. Will other kids make fun of their names? Um, kids made fun of my name, which was in the top 20 back in the 70s. That's what kids do, as Ahmet Zappa found out when he changed his name to Rick so kids would stop calling him Ahmet Vomit. Instead they called him Rick the Dick. (Supposedly he changed it back and they started calling him Ahmet the Dick, which is actually pretty funny). Anyway, who's to say what name is in a child's best interest? Remember the strange case of the brothers Winner and Loser Lane.

And now the ironic twist ending: while my sister and her girlfriend may not be able to name their child anything they want, at least in Germany they can have a child together, legally and unambiguously. In many parts of America, that wouldn't be the case. I think I'd settle for a world without Carmens and Moxie Crimefighters if it meant that all children with boring, gender-specific names could have two loving parents.

Posted by Daniel Radosh




... "Another study that compared people in different occupations showed that those employed in middle-class jobs got upset when a friend or neighbor bought the same car as theirs because they felt that the uniqueness of their choice had been undercut. But those in working-class jobs liked it when others chose the same car because it affirmed that they had made a good choice."

(From the NYTimes Magazine)

When I read that paragraph, all I could think of was... so that's why all those people give their kids the same names.

We must be doing better than I thought--we named our kids Rowan and Sabine; one of which the Germans would approve heartily and one they would refuse on grounds of being non-gender specific thanks to stoopid celebrities like Brooke Shields who named her daughter Rowan Francis (Frances is the feminine).

Good luck to your sister and her partner!

But wait, isn't it the working class (or the black working class at any rate) who are more likely to give their kids "unique" names (per the urban legend about Lemongello and Orangello)?

>>I think I'd settle for a world without Carmens and Moxie Crimefighters if it meant that all children with boring, gender-specific names could have two loving parents.

amen, daniel.

Daniel, come on, contrary to having a scent of anti-semitism, I bet you this law has much to do with keeping extreme rightists from honoring fascists by naming their kids after them --i.e., "Himmler", "Goering", "Goebbels", etc. If I was a kid and my insane parents wanted to name me this way, I'd be happy the state intervened.

Naming your kid after "great leaders" isn't uncommon: a good friend of mine who lived in India met "Stalin"s and "Lenin"s. (India was tighter with the Soviets than the U.S. in the Cold War, after all.) And there are a hell of a lot of "Vladimir"s in Latin Cuba.... Not that there's anything wrong with the name Vladimir.

But I understand your point about how the state is a bit unnuanced in its application of the law.

Interesting theory, John, but I suspect wrong. I bet the law (or ones like it) pre-dates the war, and the fact that other European countries have similar ones make me suspect that this really is all about efficiency and order. I didn't mean to imply that the resonances with antisemitism are intentional, I suspect that's purely coincidence. But I found nothing indicating that this is part of Germany's previously discussed anti-Nazi speech codes.

However my sister did just tell me that until the 90s, all Kurdish names were on the no-fly list, out of deference to Germany's allies in Turkey.

So, what do the ladies wish to name their kid?

I'm very much in favor of naming regulations. I don't care about gender specificity or weirdness. I don't want people to use nicknames as given names (so your Lolita would be out). It's just so lazy. Also one shouldn't have a last name (very broadly defined) for a first name unless it actually appears in one's family (in a set course of time). I mean come on.

I understand the knee-jerk American aversion to legislating good taste but frankly I think the Republic, such as it is, would survive. In a better State we would recognize names as clerical/historical terms and not some mystic life-shaping window to the soul or monument to our own fatuous feeling of self-importance. Needless to say I plan to take full advantage of the current chaos as long as it lasts. I'm just that fatuous. My [fake] son, Polly, and [fake]daughter, Federline, will testify to that.

I recall reading in one of the "Beyond Jennifer..." books that the French also had a "naming law" which at one time mandated that Christian children receive saint's names, while Jewish children received Old Testament names. Couldn't say if that's true or not, but I do remember the French gov't preventing one family from naming their son Napoleon-- it turns out the family's name was "L'Empereur."

>So, what do the ladies wish to name their kid?

Sunbeam Goebbels. Can you believe those fascists are trying to rein them in?!

>>So, what do the ladies wish to name their kid?

>Sunbeam Goebbels. Can you believe those fascists are trying to rein them in?!

Well, yes. I could see how the Germans would be a wee bit uptight about naming a kid after a major American corporate manufacturer. I don't expect they'd like Kitchen-Aid Himmler, either.

>I don't expect they'd like Kitchen-Aid Himmler, either.

But then, now that I think on it, they might *buy* a "Kitchen-Aid Himmler."

"It slices, it dices, it blends and himmels like no other!"

If I was a guy, I'd wanna be named Himmler!!! :D

Not Goring cuzz he was fat. But Himmler was cute.

Hi! Names fascinate me. So does history. Loved your post; amazing.

Please pardon my ignorance...I am trying to figure out whether I might be one of those folks whose family "forgot" they were Jewish. It sounds like you know a lot about names...I don't. Your post contained much that is "news to me"!

On one side of my ancestry there is the name Esther Spawm. She lived during the 1800s. There is also a surname "Brother". On the other side there is a Bloomfield. These are all original surnames of female ancestors. Any thoughts?

I began wondering about this after asking my (now deceased) mother how it was she knew so much Yiddish. I got two different answers on two different occasions. Both sounded flimsy.

It matters to me to know this, because I fear I may be an unknowing apostate! So, I'm not "just curious"!

Feel free to email me if you have information on how to proceed, and if you have a moment! This is a wonderful site; thank you very much!

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