Monday, August 1, 2011

What's in a Name?

I've always wondered about the effect of weird names on people as they grow up. I once had students named Sky Rocket and Forrest Stump, and they seemed amused (or pretended to be) by the invariable comments by strangers encountering this monikers. Their parents no doubt enjoyed bestowing a unique, memorable name on their baby, but what about the child growing up? Were they tired of being amused?

I have the name Fanny Fangboner on my list of "Amazing Names of Real People." Also Harmony Hoot, Hyacinthe Ringrose, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Ima Mae Sprinkle, and States Rights Jones, Jr. I forgot one: Easter Lily Gates. I hope these people did not have traumatic childhoods and did not murder their parents.

It's one thing for a performance artist to choose a colorful name, like Blinky Palermo or Bent Hamer (I assume this director was not born with that name) or Googy Withers. But some names should be outlawed. Here are some first names I would not allow if I were running things:

Jazz, Aria, Shadow, Talon, Trinity, Apple. I could go on.

In France, laws are on the books prohibiting parents from assigning names that are "offensive" (a bit vague) or will "cause prejudice to the child or others," according to a 1990 website (things may have changed since.)

City hall officials generally will allow any name that's part of the family's ethnic or religious heritage, but when parents proposed naming their daughter "cerise" (cherry) a few years ago, the name was not accepted; the parents later went to court and won. So too the name Babar (after the cartoon elephant): denied.

Sixty or so years ago, the name had to come from the list of saints in the Catholic calendar; offbeat names could only be used as second names. Now, apparently, certain Americanisms are allowed if they sound French: Jonathan becomes Djonotane. Maybe that spelling will catch on here for Americans desperate to be trendy.

I don't know what the French do with Brad, Kelly, Scott, Brenda, or Shirley. It's part of a sensitive cultural debate since the law is open to uncertainty and wide interpretation--and indidivual rights are involved. Can you imagine a Tea Partyer here allowing a government official to decide that a name (Bristol, Trig come to mind) is inappropriate?

The French, who are horrified at the Canadian stance of "anything goes," have always tried to legislate in matters of language, with the French Academy once passing judgment on what words could or could not be used. Such efforts are invariably hopeless since people will speak as they wish and the language will change: usage dictates.

What the current situation is in France is something I will investigate. If any of my readers know what is de rigueur en France, please let me know, when it comes to naming babies.

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