What’s in a name?

If you’ve ever delved deep into the superabundance of message boards and forums of the internet, you’ll know that no topic is really off-limits. On discussions of politics, this is especially true, and when debating others about the limits of state power – or more fundamentally, the nature of authority – there is seemingly no end to the facets of the philosophy. Indeed, the writings of Hobbes and Mill are debated as thoroughly today as they were when they were first published.

While property rights, forms of governance, and the concept of taxation are most heavily discussed among political philosophers, there is one sorely neglected area of political philosophy: The state’s power to regulate the names of their citizens. Compared to the tax code or the electoral system, this may seem like a trivial aspect of governance, but it still raises that most fundamental question that anarchists and libertarians ask of us: Why does the state have the right to legislate over us, to dictate to us the very foundation of our external identities – our names? If I sincerely want to call my child Dickhead – having considered all of the societal ramifications, and accepted that in doing so, I would be the real dickhead, not my child, then who is to tell me I can’t?

Of course, this immature exercise of free will would probably be short-lived; The child would surely change its name at the first available opportunity. Naturally this is not a serious example, and so can be discounted quickly. But what about names that are carried by millions of people across the globe? Why should the state have the power to legislate over the Joshuas, Amelias, and Maliks of the world? These are inoffensive names.

Most countries do have some level of legislation related to names. In some parts of the United States, names like ‘Mahershalalhashbaz’ are rejected for purely technical reasons – they don’t fit on official documents. In New Zealand, parents are forbidden from naming their children after official titles like ‘Prime Minister’ in order to prevent confusion. Germany even forbids prospective parents from naming their child after commercial products, perhaps out of copyright protection, but more likely to prevent embarrassment.

Though the degrees of strictness vary between nations, one ordinarily progressive country has gained notoriety in recent years for its unusually strict naming laws. In Iceland, a Naming Committee comprised of three government-appointed intellectuals legislates in order to approve or reject every new citizen’s name. Every infant citizen of Iceland has to have their name approved by this government body within six months of their birth, and if their name is rejected, their parents are legally required to change it.

If the child’s name is not on the pre-approved list, it must meet five conditions:

  • It must not cause the owner societal embarrassment or public outrage.
  • It must have a cultural or historical connection to Iceland.
  • It must not contain any letters that do not appear in the Icelandic alphabet.
  • It must conform to the grammar rules of the Icelandic language.
  • It must match the gender of the owner, with a few exceptions.

It is the second requirement – compatibility with Iceland’s cultural traditions – that causes the most confusion.

For instance, the Committee recently added Owl Mirror (Ugluspegill) to its approved list of names, under a very long-winded and flimsy justification. Ugluspegill is the Icelandic translation of Ulenspegel, the folklore name of a German trickster who supposedly visited Iceland sometime during the 14th century. In short, there is a historical connection to Iceland, and the name is therefore acceptable. The name Harriet, on the other hand, bears no such connection, and was banned in 2014, costing a ten year old girl the right to a passport. Ugluspegill good. Harriet bad.

Even the former mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr, fell foul of the rules when he tried to remove any mention of his father’s name from his surname. Icelandic surnames are often culturally formed from a parent’s surname, with the suffix -dóttir if from the mother, and -son or -sson if from the father, and so Gnarr’s request to remove the ‘Kristinsson’ from his surname flew in the face of committee rules. He described the Naming Committee as “unfair, stupid [and] against creativity”, and eventually resorted to having his name recognized in a Texan court.

The Naming Committee is evocative of Mark Dunn’s novel Ella Minnow Pea, which takes place on the fictional island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina. Ruled by a despotic council, the island gets its name from Nevin Nollop, a deceased writer who supposedly created the phrase “the quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog”, which is displayed on a memorial statue. When the adhesive on the statue’s letters begins to wear, they periodically fall to the ground, and the council interprets this as Nollop’s divine will, informing them that the letters are tainted. The council instructs the police to remove all trace of the fallen letters from the island, and threatens those who dare to use them with imprisonment, banishment, and even execution. By the end of the book, barely any letters remain, and many citizens lie dead.

In Iceland, the Naming Committee does not rule with such an iron fist, but its arbitrary decrees on acceptable and unacceptable names recalls a similar aspect of totalitarianism, casual though it may be. ‘Alex’, ‘Adriana’, and ‘Kelly’ are all banned. ‘Einar’ with one R is approved, but ‘Einarr’ with two R’s is banned. ‘Caitlin’ is banned, but ‘Kaitlin’ is approved.

Thankfully, Iceland may soon be free from this casual oppression. A recent poll shows that at least 60% of citizens are against the rules, and even the current Minister of the Interior Ólöf Nordal, has gone on record stating that she would like to see it destroyed.

So the next time you find yourself getting knee-deep in a discussion about the rights of citizens on 4chan or Reddit, spare a thought for the Harriets and Einarrs of Iceland too.


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