What’s in a name?

Meet Blær. She’s a fifteen year old girl from Iceland, and her name roughly translates to “light breeze”. Nothing unusual there, right? Except for the fact that her name is banned. According to the Icelandic government, her name is Stúlka (which is Icelandic for ‘girl’). In 1991, Iceland implemented the Icelandic Naming Committee to ensure that its newest citizens weren’t given un-Icelandic names. In classic bureaucratic fashion, the committee drafted a list of approved names. But this is Iceland, after all-a relatively progressive Nordic nation. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a way to circumvent this list and get your name approved. The only problem is that the committee is composed of a whopping three people, nominated by three different groups (the University of Iceland’s Philosophy and Law departments and the Icelandic Naming Committee, which is a government group dedicated to the preservation of the Icelandic language). It seems to me that this might be a group that is perfect for determining whether or not a name is linguistically appropriate, but something tells me they’re going to be hostile towards new names.

In some ways, I wonder why the United States doesn’t have a list of approved names. Everybody has known somebody with an unusual (and possibly cruel) name. But that said, language and names both evolve. It’s natural, and probably inevitable (though some countries may disagree). As we move into an increasingly globalized world, many nations and cultural groups are seeking out ways to ensure that their customs are not forgotten. However, I’m not sold on the idea that hampering individual expression, particularly with regard to names, is required to preserve culture. Given that people often strongly identify with their name (and it is the most common identifier of individuals), it is important for governing bodies to also understand the significance of rejecting or forcefully changing a person’s name.

Apart from the continued rejection of an individual that a name revocation of sorts can have, Blær’s case is particularly unfortunate because her name was deemed appropriate-had she been male. That’s right-Blær is a great, masculine Icelandic name. This raises an interesting question of how gender norms are rooted in culture, and how cultures can be preserved while maintaining and promoting equality. While many languages have defined gender conventions for many words, I think it is safe to say that modifying the convention can be appropriate in certain situations (such as calling a female deliverer of mail a mail carier as opposed to a mailman), though this almost definitely modifies the original language. Still, equality seems like a justified cause for the loss of complete lingual accuracy. As for Blær, she and her mother appealed the decision, with the district court ruling in their favor. Hopefully, Iceland will revisit their naming policies in the near future.