Ein Jung Namens Susanna

Hey wait, turns out I do have something to post about after all.  Baby names!

In Johnny Cash’s "A Boy Named Sue," Johnny advances the Cash Theory of baby names: a freaky name will make your child strong.  Turns out there’s something to that, according to this recent article in the New York Times.  But first, some history.  Back in the day, author J. Marion Tierney explains, everyone agreed unusual baby names spelled disaster:

Studies showed that children with odd names got worse grades and were less popular than other classmates in elementary school. In college they were more likely to flunk out or become “psychoneurotic.”

Prospective bosses spurned their résumés. They were overrepresented among emotionally disturbed children and psychiatric patients. Some of these mental problems might have been genetic — what kind of parent picks a name like Golden Rule or Mary Mee? — but it was still bad news.

This is certainly still the theory in Germany, a country in which some government official has the power to veto names new parents want to give their children (g) because the name "doesn’t exist" or would expose the child to "ridicule."  Balkan friends of mine have also been prevented from giving their male children names that end with "a" (which are common there) on the theory that these names don’t clearly indicate the child is male.

This policy has always struck me as rather hard to reconcile with family autonomy and privacy.  After all, what could be more intimate and private than the what to name your baby?  Whenever I’ve asked Germans why these regulations exist, they always seem surprised by the question, and can only reach for generalities: "of course" we need such a law because otherwise "uneducated" people would "cripple their childrens’ future" by giving them some crazy name. 

To be fair, they also point out that there are thousands of names which are uncontroversial, so parents do have a wide spectrum to choose from.  The killer argument in favor of the laws, though, is invariably the idea that some member of the "underclass" will name his daughter "Pepsi," which is supposed to make chills run up and down my spine, because it Pepsi’s name will supposedly consign her to a life of humiliation. 

A few researchers have now looked into whether that’s actually true:

Today, though, the case for Mr. Cash’s theory looks much stronger, and I say this even after learning about Emma Royd and Post Office in a new book, “Bad Baby Names,” by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback.

By scouring census records from 1790 to 1930, Mr. Sherrod and Mr. Rayback discovered Garage Empty, Hysteria Johnson, King Arthur, Infinity Hubbard, Please Cope, Major Slaughter, Helen Troy, several Satans and a host of colleagues to the famed Ima Hogg (including Ima Pigg, Ima Muskrat, Ima Nut and Ima Hooker).

The authors also interviewed adults today who had survived names like Candy Stohr, Cash Guy, Mary Christmas, River Jordan and Rasp Berry. All of them, even Happy Day, seemed untraumatized.

Recent studies that control for other factors have found little impact from names:

Other researchers found that children with unusual names were more likely to have poorer and less educated parents, handicaps that explained their problems in school. Martin Ford and other psychologists reported, after controlling for race and ethnicity, that children with unusual names did as well as others in school. The economists Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt reached a similar conclusion after controlling for socioeconomic variables in a study of black children with distinctive names.

“Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” said Dr. Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”

I wonder whether this has any relevance to Germany.  I rather suspect not, for three reasons.  First, control of names is an ingrained cultural tradition here.  Most Germans don’t have a problem with it, and the few who do have little political power.  Second, it’s quite possible that, because of German society’s conformist/collectivist tinge, children with strange names actually will have more problems here than they would in the freewheeling U.S.  Third, although I don’t doubt that concern for the child’s welfare plays some role in tolerance of government name-regulation, I rather suspect that there are other factors involved as well.  So even if you proved unusual names had no effect on child welfare, the regulations would remain.

18 thoughts on “Ein Jung Namens Susanna

  1. “This policy has always struck me as rather hard to reconcile with family autonomy and privacy. After all, what could be more intimate and private than the what to name your baby?”

    Heard that before. And, for what it’s worth, only uttered by Americans. Still, I so don’t get it.

    By definition, private are the things you do to yourself, and of course to another person who is capable of consenting and does so. However, here we are talking about doing something that primarily affects the life of another person – the child – who in his or present state is not even able to consent to what’s happening to him or her. Yet the decision will have have a depp impact on the child’s life, effectively contributing to shape the very identity.
    In a case as such, not only do I not have any problems with some mild governmental intervening in this area to protect the innocent, I – which is a rare thing – would even encourage it.

    This whole “Nobody’s gonna tell me how to name MY child” always makes me feel as though we are talking about a piece of property here. You can call your car whatever you like. But, come on, we’re talking about people here. Just because you just popped them out or shot your spunk in some orifice some months ago doesn’t make you their owner.

    Also remember that in ‘merca, things aren’t as bad because you can legally change your name whenever you like to whatever you like. In Germany, that is a complicated procedure, so the name chosen by the parents is very likely to stick for the entire life.

  2. Of course it’s not true in general that “foreign names” are not accepted – there are rules to that, I think you need to submit proof that they “exist” in the place of origin.

  3. “Also remember that in ‘merca, things aren’t as bad because you can legally change your name whenever you like to whatever you like. In Germany, that is a complicated procedure, so the name chosen by the parents is very likely to stick for the entire life.”

    And that’s just another example of the different levels of “freedom” in these two countries.

  4. In Ostfriesland, the northwestern corner of germany bordering the netherlands, they have an ancient law for names, which is still, as a minority-exception, valid:
    Personal name and familyname exchange their places in the next generation. Example: the fathers name is Jan Harms. His sons name would be Harm Janssen. Tammo Freerksen > Freerk Tammen, Fokko Habbema > Habbo Focken. Usually the oldest son has this strange thing with his name.

    But this is, of course a fading habit. It ruins every attempt, to keep a database in order.

  5. Let me share my knowledge, I collected when my sister choosed names for her two sons. She and her husband went through quite an amount of trouble because they wanted to give their children a combination of syrian and frisian names. Especially frisian names tend to be genderless.

    “Balkan friends of mine have also been prevented from giving their male children names that end with “a” (which are common there) on the theory that these names don’t clearly indicate the child is male.”

    It is true, that your Balkan friends couldn’t choose a single name that whouldn’t have clarified the gender of the future name-bearer. But there is a loop-hole. The gender has to become evident by the first OR second Name! “Luka Jakov” as an kroatian example should work.

    You also have the right to give your children foreign names, as long as you can give prove that they are commonly used to name “natural” Individuals/ persons of the same gender. Remember the, at least for german ears, strange name of the son of Verona Pooth aka Feldbusch, San Diego. Fantasy names are also possible, as long as you can find some americans bearing that name.
    Other names got common that derived from Novels. Best example: The name “Ronja”, that was created by Astrid Lindgen. “Ronja” got accepted because of the same reason as foreign names. It got known as name for humans from the book and it doesn’ defame the future owner.

    Still, if you have the bad luck to have to deal with an unwilling/ uncapable official, naming your child in Germany can become a real struggle.

  6. hm… Of course this seems as a limitation of freedom at the first glance, but the germans have thousands of names and common foreign names are also allowed. There are also some weird and old-fashioned names like “Mercedes” allowed – as a girl’s name of course. So I think this law restricts only a few – maybe for their own good.

  7. Btw there’s a song by Bernadette La Hengst: Ein Mädchen namens Gerd (A girl named Gerd).

    And, Susanne is surely more common in Germany than Susanna.

  8. @ berdbrunzema
    Hast du irgendeinen Beleg dafür, dass das in Ostfriesland heute noch möglich ist? Ich fände das bemerkenswert, habe aber im Netz nur gefunden, dass diese Regelung 1811 verboten wurde.

    Und zum Thema ein Zitat aus dem Buch “Schöner leben mit dem kleinen Arschloch” von Walter Moers, Kapitel “Misslungene Kinder”:
    “Schon bei der Namensgebung können Sie dafür sorgen, dass seine Existenz zur Hölle wird. Nennen Sie das Kind einfach ‘Joghurt’, ‘Arschfick’ oder ‘Vagina’, das wird ihm eine Lehre sein, derart missgestaltet in Ihr Leben zu platzen.”

  9. @Madde:

    Ich habe keinen Beleg dafür, das es jetzt noch gültig ist, aber ich weiß definitiv, das es eine Sonderregelung gab, die bis in meine Schulzeit (bis ca 1990) gültig war. Möglicherweise ist das im Rahmen einer EU-Harmonisierung abgeschafft worden. Ich vermute, irgendjemand in der “Ostfriesischen Landschaft”, der Interessen Vertretung in Sachen ostfriesischer Kultur kann dazu mehr sagen.

  10. Hey, we’re not the only country that does this. Other European countries are even worse. I used to have a colleague I think from Czech origin who called himself “Janik”, but was filed in all databases under “Juan”. He explained that was because he was born in Spain and the local authorities insisted that “Janik” is not a name so they gave him the name “Juan”.

    I work in a Finnish company since a year or so and have been in Finland a couple of times now. Once I had a conversation with a some colleagues where I started to praise the Fins for sticking so much to their culture which I thought shows also in their names: Nobody’s called Justin or Kevin, Chantal or Jennifer; everybody has a proper Finnish name like Sinikka, Aarre, Kirsi, Jyrki, Kimi, or Mikko. Well, I was totally disabused of that notion shortly after. They explained that this is because the authorities allowed only Finnish names until very recently. Probably you could have also a Swedish name like Christer, Linus or Sverker if you belonged to the Swedish minority, but that was it.

    Now tell me we are bad ;->

  11. “You also have the right to give your children foreign names, as long as you can give prove that they are commonly used to name “natural” Individuals/ persons of the same gender.”

    The irony about this is that it results in the situation that completely new names will never be allowed in Germany. There might be creative parents that come up with a beautiful fantasy name which hasn’t been used anywhere in the world yet (not even in fiction) – they’ll be refused the right to give their son/daughter that name. So for a totally new name to come into existence, Germany is out of the game. However, it’s ok if they exist in other countries (eg USA). How can new names then ever come into existence, if you don’t want to go elsewhere?

  12. There should be a corresponding rule that old German names which are truly wretched (apologies in advance to anyone named Wilhelmina, Uwe or Schmuel) are automatically prohibited.

  13. Well, I have to back up Junger Gott here. Personally I believe that your name shapes your personality to some extend, and that one should have the right to change the name your parents gave you if you don’t feel it fits you.
    And yes, indeed, as a child in Germany, you will face teasing and bullying if you have an uncommon name. Mr. Cash may be right that, in the long run, overcoming this teasing and bullying can make you strong. But it can also break you. I’m not speaking from personal experience here: I have a very common name for my age (there were always two Olivers in all of my school classes), but I experienced bullying for being gay. Which, in the long run, made me strong. But there are a lot of gay teenagers still committing suicide each year. And there is a link between being gay and having a strange name: you’re not part of the majority.
    So I’m not saying naming your child “Möve” makes it gay. 😉 I’d even back up abolishing the German law on first names, under the condition that one would also be allowed to change his own name with, say, 12 years. Or whatever age.

  14. 50% of upper class baby boys are called Alexander or Maximilian. Quite boring – while amusing names like Pumuckl and Störenfried, Pepsi and Omo, Schroeder and Lenin did not pass the examination.

    Also Bilhildis, Bertlinde, Widugard and Kunheide would fail a 21st century examination, but if you bring an old name directory to the Standesamt, it will work.

    My advice if you look for an extraordinary boy names: Check the list of ancient bishops of your diocese. Paderborn, for example, has Hathumar, Badurad, Liuthard, Biso, Unwan, Dudo, Rethar, Imad and Poppo, before lots of Heinrichs and Bernhards took over. The Standesamt officials in the Paderborn area will be surprised and delighted if you follow this tradition.

    The German regulations veto ridiculous and evil names – good idea. So if your favourite names “Satan” and “Dämon” are discarded, suggest “Adolf”. I never read that this name was rejected. For investigators: Is there anybody in Germany called Adolf and younger than 60?

  15. @ LutzB:

    For one, there is the mayor of the amazingly ugly city of Duisburg, Herr Adolf Sauerland, born in 1955.

    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Sauerland

    There is a certain Johnny Cash aspect to him: Being called Adolf must suck generally, but particularly so when you enter the political arena. I feel I must give the guy some kudos for actually reaching an elevated office with this setback of a name his loving parents decided to equip him with.

  16. Whatever you sy, German authorities try to allow as much as they deem suitable for the child. They also allow multiple first namen (up to five). And don’t tell me that a name like “Chenekwahow Tecumseh Migiskau Ernesto Kioma” is that helpful for a child and its future (see http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/entscheidungen/rk20040128_1bvr099498.html (g)).

    I remember a different study: Children with out-of-place names receive more attention from their teachers (which are better able to memorize their name) and are therefore better in school.

    As to Adolf: While the name ‘may’ be connected to A.H., this is not necessarily so. There may be a different family tradition (see also http://lexikon.beliebte-vornamen.de/adolf.htm (g)).

    Kyrill

    @Junger Gott: Duisburg is not amaizingly ugly. It may have ugly spots – but this happens to all cities. And Duisburg is working its way out of economic downturn.

  17. Quote: “@Junger Gott: Duisburg is not amaizingly ugly. It may have ugly spots – but this happens to all cities. And Duisburg is working its way out of economic downturn.”

    Well, while other cities may have ugly spots surrounded by beauty it’s sort of the other way round in Duisburg. Trust me, I live there. There is no denying the nice spots, point given, but it’s not like there are many of them. Some of them are only visible to those with Saint-Exupéry shaped eyes.

    And as to working its way out – hu, it might help to regard the citizens as human, not mere cash cows.

    Sorry about the bitter notioned off-topic post!

    And as to the regulation: well Chantal and Kevin are both proper and, er, accepted names. However, some of us might feel that urge to avoid these names when christening their babies. Completely regardless of “Axl Schweiss” scenarios.

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