In the U.S., convention regarding name-changes after marriage has changed dramatically in recent decades–but not in the way you might think: a thirty-five year long longitudinal study showed that the 1990s was the high-water mark with respect to women preserving their maiden names (now often referred to as birth names), when nearly one-quarter of married women did so. That number has continued to slowly decline to approximately 18% today. Well-educated, high-earning women are much more likely to retain their names, largely for professional reasons. While taking the husbands’ name is still by far the most popular choice, some spouses conjoin their names into one hyphenated last name. In some rare cases, spouses have created entirely new last names following marriage that both use. Changing one’s name after marriage is not especially difficult in the U.S. (at least relative to some other countries), although it typically involves expenses, paperwork, legal proceedings, and the publication of legal notices in newspapers. In Quebec, a civil law jurisdiction, the norm is quite different. There, under a law passed in 1981, a married woman not only does not automatically take her husband’s last name, but she is not permitted to do so, even if she applies for an official name change. Such a situation shocked a newlywed Ontario-born wife several years ago, who realized she ran afoul of a law that was designed to enshrine gender equality. The Quebec civil registrar also weighs-in on baby names, contesting and sometimes rejecting names that it feels will cause the children ridicule. Recent names that have been contested include Avalanche. But ‘la belle province’ is far from exceptional in this regard., as numerous other jurisdictions also have baby-naming laws. For example, Sweden promulgated the Naming Law in 1982, designed to prevent non-aristocratic families from using noble names, but it was modified over time to also encompass names that would cause ridicule. The law stipulates that “[f]irst names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name”. In recent years, they have rejected Elvis, Superman, Metallica, and A. New Zealand’s 1995 law does not allow any names that “might cause offence to a reasonable person” or is “unreasonably long…or without adequte justificiation” or which resembles an official title or rank. They have rejected names such as Fish and Chips, 4Real, Adolf Hitler, Sex Fruit, and Satan. For reasons known only to themselves, they have apparently approved the baby name Number 16 Bus Shelter – probably best not to think why the parents were inspired to name the child thusly — and also Benson and Hedges (naturally, for twins: can corporate sponsorship be far behind?). Germany’s name laws require that a child’s gender be identifiable by their first name, and that it not subject them to ridicule, and these rules are enforced by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Matti was rejected a few years ago because it did not indicate gender, although Nemo was approved for a baby boy (thereby pleasing the Walt Disney Company, one assumes). Perhaps nowhere is name regulation taken more seriously than in Denmark. In a culture where uniqueness is not necessarily embraced as virtue, the government has helpfully complied a list of 7,000 approved names for girls and boys from which parents may choose (the list is heavy on West European and English names, although in recent years more ethnic names have been added, recognizing growing immigration from outside of Europe). Deviations from this list require approval by both the Ministry of Family and Consumer Affairs and the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which routinely rejects names that are considered gender-ambiguous, frivolous or unusual. Names that did not meet with official sanction in recent years include Monkey, Bebop and Anus. The law was also designed to make changing last names difficult, apparently to mollify aristocratic families who worried their names would be usurped by commoners. So, what’s in a name? Depends on who you’re asking–and where.
And a topical update: earlier this month a Child Support judge in Newport, Tennessee changed a boy’s first name from “Messiah” to “Martin”, saying that it is a “title that has been earned by only one person and ”that one person is Jesus Christ.”