Take magicians Penn and Emily Jillette, for example. The duo named their baby Zolten, which certainly hints at a future in the family business. Then there are the celebrity parents who take baby-naming to an art form. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Chris Martin opted for Apple, and power performers Beyonce and Jay-Z named their daughter Blue Ivy.
While kids with unusual names will never understand the joy or annoyance of being known by “first name, last initial” like all the Ashleys of the 1990s, they’ll spend a lifetime living with their unusual monikers.
You can name your baby anything you want, right? After spending all those hours searching baby name databases, it seems daunting to narrow down the selections — but in a smattering of states and countries, the choices have been limited for you.
If some names are illegal, what in the world can, and can’t, you name a baby?
The Illegal Name Game
There’s no universal law governing baby names. The regulations — if they exist — vary greatly by country, and even the laws of individual states in these countries don’t line up cohesively.
In the United States, for example, state laws restrict parental naming rights in a variety of ways. For example, there may be restrictions on particular surnames or diacritical marks (like accent marks) and prohibitions on obscenities, numerals or pictograms, says J.R. Skrabanek, senior counsel with the Snell Law Firm in Austin, Texas.
“Generally, these laws need to comply with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in order to be constitutional,” he says.
The restrictions are generally practical ones, such as requiring only the letters of the alphabet and not pictograms or symbols, says Matt C. Pinsker, an adjunct professor who teaches constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University. “For example, [in the U.S.] a name entered on a birth certificate must be entered in the traditional letters of the alphabet, and not the letters or symbols of the Chinese alphabet. Other times, names are limited in length because of record-keeping software. Some states allow accents over names, while others do not.”
For example, Pinsker says, the accent over the “e” in José is actually prohibited by California law. A move to overturn the law banning diacritical marks failed in 2014, in large part because adding Spanish accents to birth records could cost state registrars an estimated $10 million.
Around the World
American naming laws are different from those on other continents. “In Europe, parents are not allowed to name their children Hitler or Stalin, but in America, that would violate the freedom of expression,” Pinsker says.
Denmark, in particular, has some of the most restrictive naming laws. In order to abide by the country’s Law on Personal Names, parents may select a name from a list of 7,000 approved names for both boys and girls, all using traditional spellings. To give a child a moniker that is not pre-approved requires review by government officials. Of the estimated 1,100 names that are scrutinized annually, about 20 percent are rejected. Among the thrown-out names? Anus, Pluto and Monkey. On the approved list? Names like Benji, Molli and Fee.
In some states, names aren’t officially banned until after a parent claims a problematic moniker for a child. In 2014, officials in Sonora, Mexico, reviewed actual names from the state’s 132 newborn registries and banned61 of those names, including Facebook, Robocop and Batman. Previously, the state had no such prohibition, which means babies legally received names such as US Navy, Hitler and Harry Potter before the ban was enacted.
For many officials, its less about the names and more about what they represent: a potential lifetime of putdowns. “The law is very clear because it prohibits giving children names that are derogatory or that don’t have any meaning and that can lead to bullying,” said Sonora state Civil Registry Director Cristina Ramirez, according to the Associated Press.
A Question of ‘Should’
Aside from specific state or country restrictions, parents still have access to a considerable variety of names, some that are potentially objectionable for reasons ranging from historical issues to criminal acts.
“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” says Andrew Hoverman, a Maryland attorney who is familiar with state laws regulating names. “Just because you may have the ability to name a child something objectionable, controversial or crude doesn’t mean it is a good idea.”