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<nettime> Danish Government Decrees Proper Names for Children
coco fusco on Mon, 20 Feb 2006 21:13:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Danish Government Decrees Proper Names for Children

 So much for Danish freedom of expression when it comes to naming children, the
state decrees what is acceptable.
 Coco Fusco
 From the New York Times
     Jens and Vita, but Molli? Danes Favor Common Names By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
  Published: October 8, 2004
        OPENHAGEN - If Denmark somehow morphed into the celebrity epicenter of the
universe, there would be no place for the baby-naming eccentricities of the
world's megastars.

  Apple Paltrow Martin would be rejected as a fruit, Jett Travolta as a plane (and
misspelled as well), Brooklyn Beckham as a place, and Rumer Willis, as, well,
Danish name investigators would not even know where to begin with that one.

"Cuba is also a problem,'' said Michael Lerche Nielsen, assistant professor for
the Department of Name Research at Copenhagen University. "I have to decide: Is
this a typical boy or girl name? And that's the problem with geographical names."

  In Denmark, a country that embraces rules with the same gusto that Italy defies
them, choosing a first and last name for a child is a serious, multitiered affair,
governed by law and subject to the approval of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical
Affairs and the Ministry of Family and Consumer Affairs.

  At its heart, the Law on Personal Names is designed to protect Denmark's
innocents - the children who are undeservedly, some would say cruelly, burdened by
preposterous or silly names. It is the state's view that children should not
suffer ridicule and abuse because of their parents' lapses in judgment or their
misguided attempts to be hip. Denmark, like much of Scandinavia, prizes sameness,
not uniqueness, just as it values usefulness, not frivolousness.

  "You shouldn't stand out from anyone else here; you shouldn't think you are
better than anyone else," said Lan Tan, a 27, Danish woman of Singaporean and
Malaysian descent who is trying to win approval for her daughter's name, Frida Mei
Tan-Farndsen. "It's very Scandinavian."

  While other Scandinavian countries have similar laws, Denmark's is the
strictest. So strict that the Danish Ministry of Justice is proposing to relax the
law to reflect today's Denmark, a place where common-law marriage is accepted,
immigration is growing, and divorce is routine. The measure, which would add names
to the official list, is scheduled for debate in Parliament in November. "The
government, from a historical point of view, feels a responsibility towards its
weak citizens," said Rasmus Larsen, chief adviser at the Ministry for
Ecclesiastical Affairs, discussing the law. "It doesn't want to see people put in
a situation where they can't defend themselves. We do the same in traffic; we have
people wear seat belts."

  People expecting children can choose a pre-approved name from a government list
of 7,000 mostly Western European and English names - 3,000 for boys, 4,000 for
girls. A few ethnic names, like Ali and Hassan, have recently been added. But
those wishing to deviate from the official list must seek permission at their
local parish church, where all newborns' names are registered. A request for an
unapproved name triggers a review at Copenhagen University's Names Investigation
Department and at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which has the ultimate
authority. The law only applies if one of the parents is Danish.

  Many parents do not realize how difficult it can be to get a name approved by
the government. About 1,100 names are reviewed every year, and 15 percent to 20
percent are rejected, mostly for odd spellings. Compound surnames, like
Tan-Farnsden, also pose a problem.

  Parents who try to be creative by naming their child Jakobp or Bebop or Ashleiy
(three recent applications) are typically stunned when they are rejected. In some
cases, a baby may go without an officially approved name for weeks, even months,
making for irate, already sleep-deprived, parents.

  Greg Nagan, 39, and Trine Kammer, 32, thought it would be cute to name their
daughter Molli Malou. To their surprise, Malou was not a problem, but Molli with
an I, which they thought sounded Danish, had to be reviewed by the government. The
church told Ms. Kammer she needed to state in a letter the reason for choosing
Molli. She did so, and said she told the clerk, "Here's your stupid letter: The
reason for naming her Molli is because we like it."

  "Isn't this silly?" Ms. Kammer said. "We love to make everything a rule here.
They love to bureaucratize."

  The century-old law was initially designed to bring order to surnames. Before
the law, surnames changed with every generation: Peter Hansen would name his son
Hans Petersen. Then Hans Petersen would name his son Peter Hansen. And on it went,
wreaking bureaucratic havoc. The law ended that. It also made it difficult for
people to change their last names, a move that was designed to appease the noble
class, which feared widespread name-poaching by arrivistes, Mr. Nielsen said.

  Then in the 1960's, a furor erupted over the first name Tessa, which resembled
tisse, which means to urinate in Danish. Distressed over the lack of direction in
the law, the Danish government expanded the statute to grapple with first names.
Now the law is as long as an average-size book.

  It falls mostly to Mr. Nielsen, at Copenhagen University, to apply the law and
review new names, on a case-by-case basis. In a nutshell, he said, Danish law
stipulates that boys and girls must have different names, first names cannot also
be last names, and bizarre names are O.K. so long as they are "common."

  "Let's say 25 different people" worldwide, he said, a number that was chosen
arbitrarily. How does Mr. Nielsen make that determination? He searches the

  Generally, geographic names are rejected because they seldom denote gender.
Cairo, if it is approved at all, may be approved for a boy, but then could not be
used for a girl. Jordan is a recent exception to the one-gender rule.

  In some cases, Mr. Nielsen says, he believes he is performing a vital public
service. He advised the Ministry that Anus and Pluto be rejected, for example. He
also vetoed Monkey. "That's not a personal name, " Mr. Nielsen explained. "It's an
animal. I have to protect the children from ridicule."

  Leica, however, has been approved, as has Benji, Jiminico and Fee.  "People's
names have become part of their identities now," Mr. Nielsen said. "And people
change their names the way you change your clothes or your apartment. It has
become more common."

  And what about Molli Malou?
  Approved, by government decree, just recently.

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