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Legal names

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Interesting New York Times article about the Danish name registry. Turns out there are only 7000 officially approved names for babies in Denmark; if you want to name a baby anything else, you must apply for official permission. This system is to protect the children:

"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."

At first glance, this would appear to be just another case of government getting too intrusive into the lives of citizens. But the article goes on to provide some interesting background:

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.

I thought that was interesting, because I've had several conversations lately with various people about the difficult issues surrounding American surnames and whether to change them (and to what) when getting married. One of the things I've been pointing out to people is that the American system of surname inheritance is far from universal; there are Islamic systems, and South Asian approaches, and Mexican and Spanish approaches, and others; and the old-style Scandinavian approach indicated above (with surnames changing every generation based on father's given name) only ended relatively recently (and may still exist some places, I'm not sure). It's always hard to get enough perspective on a common cultural approach to see that it's not the only way things have ever been done, nor even the only way things are currently done.

Also thought it was interesting 'cause I often hear people shaking their heads in despair over the awful names that some people give their kids, and sometimes I even agree; and yet, I like some of the names that the Danes have outlawed, like gender-neutral names and names based on place names. So one person's great name is apparently another person's awful name. But the Danish registry makes more sense when you consider the article's statement that "Denmark, like much of Scandinavia, prizes sameness, not uniqueness, just as it values usefulness, not frivolousness."

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When I was living among the Danes, there was an Icelandic girl in my language class. All our teachers expressed great envy at her surname, which ended in -dottir (daughter of) rather than the Danish -sen (son of).

There was general feeling that her name was much cooler, on account of being of a more ancient Scandinavian way of naming. Plus, you know, it was matrilineal.

Naomi Helensdottir ;)


"Denmark, like much of Scandinavia, prizes sameness, not uniqueness, just as it values usefulness, not frivolousness."

Seems that's a significance cultural difference right there. Wonder how it's reflected (if at all) in the mutability of lack or in the language. Wonder what the(a) Danish concept of "freedom" is, and how it differs from the/an American one. Interesting.


By default, Icelanders use the patronymic (if your dad's name is Ted, Naomi, you'd be Naomi Tedsdottir, and your brother Fred would be Fred Tedsson), though they can elect to use the matronymic. That's all the choices 90% of Icelanders get.

Switzerland also theoretically has limitations on first names, designed to protect children from enduring names like Moon Unit and Rainbow, but I think the system has now broken down because of the influx of foreigners (they're not about to force all the Kurds and Tamils to call their sons Hansueli and Lukas) -- nobody gave us any grief about "Aviva".

But you can't *change* your name easily as an adult -- the court can refuse you a new name they don't feel is sufficiently justified! "Changes in the birth register lie in the competence of the judiciary", according to this site, which also notes, happily, that transsexuals haven't had much problem since the first Swiss judge to rule on the matter ruled that "It is not the body alone which determines a person's sex, it is also his soul..."

metasilk, I would say that in most of Central and Northern Europe, people place a much higher value on "fairness" and "security", relative to "freedom", compared with American society -- particularly if you define "freedom" narrowly (and negatively) as kind of a "nobody can tell me what to do" value.

My wife is astonished about all this business of having to register to vote in America -- the Herculean efforts of the democrats to get as many of the poor and indigent registered as possible, etc. In Switzerland, you don't have to register to vote. They know where you live. If you move, you have to tell the town you're leaving, and the town you're moving too. In the American view, this seems like some kind of scary Big-Brother surveillance by the state. But our illusory "freedom" in this matter mostly means that instead of registering once with the town, we have to fill out our identifying information separately for the IRS, the DMV, voter registration, and a host of other bureaucracies...


Ha, the link I cited for iceland demographics seems to have ripped its content off from Wikipedia without attribution -- or visa versa!


I was going to say Smilla’s folks must have had some trouble, but her father probably just called up someone at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and had a quiet word.

— Ah, the beauty of the GNU Free Documentation License. There must be at least a dozen Wikipedia — mm, what's a nice way to put it — reprints out there. Actually it looks like they do cite Wikipedia in very small print down at the bottom.


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