Wednesday, July 09, 2014

What’s in a name? Plenty, if you ask Harriet Cardew.

One thing about the good old U.S. of A.

Unlike those rigid old foreign countries, we pretty much don’t have rules about what you can name your kid. In fact, I think we have stricture regulations about what you can put on your license place and, in my neighborhood, what color you can paint your front door.

Not having a list of approved names is both good news and bad news.

On the plus side, you’re free to be you and me.

On the downside, well, people can saddle their kids with some pretty outrageous names, “made up” names that are difficult to spell and, in truth, can put those kids at a complete disadvantage, as the whole thing gets all mixed up in issues of class and race.

Thurston Howell III and Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., are ‘obviously’ upper crust, old school tie kind of guys.

Misty or Duane, well…

Then, of course, there’s the school of “we’re rich and famous enough to call our kids whatever”. Way back, there was Moon Unit Zappa, who’s almost fifty! More recently, there’s Apple, and North, and Blue Ivy…

And then there’s the entirely complicated issue of African Americans coming up with unique, vaguely African-sounding names that so often seem to help doom their kids to terribly downtrodden lives, unless they make it as professional athletes. Seriously, what were D'Brickashaw Ferguson’s parents thinking? Sure, he made a good go of it, but who would potential employers have taken him seriously if he didn’t end up a professional football player?

Giving your children non-standard names can really be a problem. They’ve done studies where résumés are submitted with equivalent qualifications, but the invite to interview goes to the person named Jane Doe or John Smith. This is more complicated than “pure” knee-jerk racism. If both résumés had the candidate down as the president of the college African Students Union, Jane Doe and John Smith still get the nod over their more exotically-named peers.

Many European countries have very strict naming rules. No Moon Units in Germany! No Freedom, no Jupiters (I actually know someone with a granddaughter named Jupiter), no Sunshines in Sweden.

Of course, it was easier for these countries to keep a master list of names than it would be for us, given the breadth of ethnic diversity here.

And I’m sure that the European countries have had to expand their lists, given their ethnic make ups are not quite as homogeneous as they once were.

But Iceland must not get that many blow-ins having babies in the New Country, where even a relatively normal name – at least in the English speaking world – is verboten. (Or whatever the word for verboten is in Icelandic.)

Here’s what happened to the Cardew family.

Tristan Cardew, as one might reasonable discern from his name, is a Brit. It’s not immediately obvious from his wife’s name – Kristin – where she’s from, but it seems as if it must be Iceland.

Anyway, two of their kids were born in Iceland, and were given proper British names, Harriet and Duncan.

Unfortunately for them:

Icelandic laws state that unless both parents are foreign, they must submit their name choice to the National Registry for approval within six months of birth. The name must fulfill requirements that include "Icelandic grammatical endings," "linguistic structure of Iceland" and "Icelandic orthography." (Source: Huffington Post)

This is by no means an especially limiting list. There are  1,853 names for girls, and 1,712 for boys. So it’s not all Gunnar and, ah, Kristin.

But Harriet, apparently, doesn’t make the “Icelandic orthography” cut. (Not clear what happened to Duncan, but his name may have been Gunnar-ish enough, orthographically speaking.)

The Cardews:

… live in Reykjavik, Iceland, and up until this point, have been going by "Girl" and "Boy" on their passports. But upon getting Harriet's passport request, the government went a step further and denied her an updated passport completely, which could put her family's upcoming trip to France on hold.

There is a workaround. The Cardews can give Harriet an Icelandic middle name.

…but the family thinks it's too late. Instead, they applied for an emergency passport from the British Embassy where dad Tristan is from.

I know from personal (and recent) experience that this passport waiting game can be nerve-wracking.

A few days before my recent trip to Ireland, I got word that my niece Caroline’s passport had expired earlier in the year, and that the re-application process had somehow gotten screwed up. Fortunately, the problem was resolved, but she didn’t have her new passport in hand until the day before we left.

But this had nothing to do with Caroline’s perfectly good name.

Hard to believe that a country as seemingly sensible as Iceland can’t figure out how to get Harriet Cardew Kristindottir her passport.

I’m sure something will come through, so I’ll wish Harriet a well-deserved bon voyage.

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