Recent Posts



Tuesday, 25 April 2006
Lock, stock and two double barrels

I don’t generally use my full name, Mary-Jane Jackson-Cholmondesley-Featherstonehaugh, for fear it might cause offence in Germany or Slovakia.


A student recently complained that he had been discriminated against by the US Embassy because his name is Mohammed. Somebody once told me that the name Adolf is illegal in Germany. This turns out not to be the case, although it is frowned upon for obvious and sensible reasons. It seems, however, that some less offensive sounding names are illegal.  

LUXEMBOURG -- Young Leonhard Matthias Grunkin-Paul has a problem: His name is illegal.

The German boy's divorced parents want Leonhard to be known by their combined last names, an increasingly common practice elsewhere. But authorities in Germany, citing a law against hyphens, have refused to allow it. So Leonhard, born in 1998, officially has no last name at all.

His passport reads: "Leonhard Matthias, son of Stefan Grunkin and Dorothee Paul." Says his mother: "I don't know how he can go through life like that."

Many Germans have long chafed under their country's rigid naming rules. But a European Union court may shortly deal the rules a blow for at least some of them. A preliminary ruling from the court has found that Leonhard, a German citizen born and named in Denmark, is entitled to his hyphen as a citizen of the EU.

Never let it be said that the EU is an expensive and corrupt waste of space.  

"We have had these rules for as long as I can remember," says Karin M. Eichhoff-Cyrus, director of the state-funded German Language Society, which helps enforce the rules. "Everyone knows you cannot have a name that is 'Refrigerator' or something."

What a shame. This puts paid to the chat-up line: “What’s an ice-girl like you doing in a place like this?”

And why no hyphens? Dr. Eichhoff-Cyrus, who hyphenated her own surname after marriage but is not allowed to pass it on to her children, explains that the concern is hyphenation multiplication. If a double-named boy grew up to marry and have children with a double-named woman, those children could have four names, and their children could have eight, and their children could have 16. The bureaucracy shudders.

All Germans register their names with the Standesamt, or local registry. Standards vary from place to place, and applicants who are turned down can appeal to the courts. Authorities are usually more flexible about first names than last. Among the first names approved over the years, according to the Language Society: Pumuckl, taken from a cartoon character, and Pepsi-Carola, taken from a soft drink. Rejected: Lenin, McDonald, Schnucki and Bierstubl, which translates roughly as "little beer pub."

A Dusseldorf court in 1998 rejected the name Chenekwahow Migiskau Nikapi-Hun-Nizeo Alessandro Majim Chayara Inti Ernesto Prithibi Kioma Pathar Henriko, on the grounds that the mother's wish to honor multiculturalism shouldn't result in an awkwardly long name for the child. A Frankfurt court upheld the name Jesus the same year, in part because it's widely known that Christ was male, leaving little room for gender confusion.

Germany isn't alone in Europe in regulating names. Slovakia, for example, forbids first names that are eccentric, derogatory or ludicrous (parents can't name a child "Cigarette," for instance). It also generally bans hyphenated last names for children -- though the Ministry of Interior says it makes an exception for the children of hyphenated foreigners living in Slovakia. Natives are allowed double surnames without hyphens.

But in Belgium, authorities in 1997 told children of a Spanish-Belgian marriage they could not switch to a Spanish-style double surname: "There are insufficient grounds to propose to His Majesty the King that he grant you the favor of changing your surname." They appealed to an EU court and won. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, imposes almost no rules.

Give them time. This Government has made rules about everything else. Why should we be allowed to play fast and loose with names and hyphens?

Posted on 04/25/2006 9:14 AM by Mary-Jane Jackson-Cholmondesley-Featherstonehaugh