Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Name Post: Onomasticians Unite!

There was so much to be uncovered during my first two and half weeks in Germany that I never quite got this blog up to speed. Despite the fact that I’m writing this from Copenhagen, I want to back track to my last week in Germany, which is also actually projecting forward to my return there at the end of this week.

There were a lot of reasons why living near Leipzig for a few weeks turned out to be a good thing. I can’t quite believe I was stupid enough not to know this before I arrived, but the center for German names is right in downtown Leipzig. This is not only the center for all German names, but for names in Austria and Switzerland as well. So, completely by chance, I happened to be staying with a contact who lives about twenty minutes away from the major academic group studying names for most of Europe. (I really can’t stress the serendipity of this enough…I mean have you ever heard of another university besides the one in Leipzig that offers a whole onomastics department?)

This is just a random photo of me in East Germany that I haven't posted yet, but to give it a seminar-style segue, my excitement about this caramel macchiato and cake is about equal to my excitement about the naming institute.

I was plugging away on the computer at Emma’s house when her husband and I came across this page for the center: http://www.gfn.name/. With the help of Stefan’s translation skills, I soon learned that this center has a variety of purposes. First and foremost, it’s connected with an academic department. Students at the University of Leipzig can choose to study onomastics (names!) as a concentration (most of these students are coming from the linguistics department) and they all take classes in place names, surnames, and the cultural significance and origins of first names. The center also acts as a help desk to German parents who are trying to understand the rules of naming a baby in Germany (believe me, it gets complicated). For a fee, people can pay the center to write an official certificate to then show at the standesamt in support of a name. Researchers at the center will then do their own research about the name and make a case for why it should (or should not) be allowed in Germany. Because they are the only people who do this kind of work for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, their recommendation (or lack there of) makes a large difference in whether a name is accepted by a standesamt or not. People also come to the center with requests for them to research their last name and for a fee the center will put together a book on its history and origins. If I had extra euros (who does, really?) I would ask them to research "Bang-Jensen" in a heartbeat.

I was exponentially excited just to peruse their website and even more excited when I got an e-mail back from them a mere fourteen minutes after I requested a meeting. I met with Gabriele Rodriguez who has taken over the responsibility of making all of the certificates for parents’ seeking approval on a name, as well as dealing with the press about legal questions involving names, popular names trends, and current data.

The super chic University of Leipzig building where the naming center lives.

Everyone at the university center was incredibly kind in welcoming me into their midst. Gabriele and I talked for three and a half hours, and there’s so much wonderful & interesting stuff from that conversation that it’s hard to capture it all. I also learned that there are actually academic conferences on names. (WHAT?! How did I not know this?! ) They’re sponsored by the International Council on Onomastic Sciences and the next one is going to be in Glasgow in 2014. I just need to figure out a way to strongly suggest to the Watson Foundation that they abandon all tradition and continue to give me money to do this beyond one year. For a description of what onomastics is on the ICOS website, see: http://www.icosweb.net/index.php/whatis-onomastics.html.

I had been getting a lot of mixed information from people about what exactly the German law about names is today, and Gabriele was able to clear up a lot. She also pointed out, however, that some of the discrepancies simply comes from the fact that different standesamt officers have different standards for names and personal biases. (A baby named “Millennium”* might not be okay to a guy working at a standesamt in Delitzsch but might be a-okay to a woman working at a standesamt in Halle, for example).

The unusually named Kemba on our trip to the zoo.

She told me that 2008 was the year of big changes in the law. Interestingly, these changes were brought about by an Indian couple living in Germany who wanted to name their daughter “Kiran.” The government said that Kiran was a boy’s name and that they couldn’t do this without giving their daughter a second name that was more feminine. The couple was adamant that they didn’t want to give their daughter a middle name, and finally the government relented.** That case seems to be the turning point where the law was changed and it wasn’t only “German names” that were accepted. Today, the sex of the child still has to be evident from the name BUT if you can prove (often with the help of Gabriele Rodriguez at the University of Leipzig,) that worldwide this name can stand alone as predominantly male or female, it will most often be approved.

Take, for example, a call that Gabriele got while I was in the office. A German mother was calling who wanted to name her new baby “Marlene.” She had gone to the standesamt and they had told her that it’s not clear if this is a boy’s name or a girl’s name (to readers in the United States, this might be surprising). The standesamt told her she should give her daughter a second name that was recognizably feminine. The mother was calling Gabriele at the center because she didn’t want to giver her daughter a second name. She was hoping to get a certificate from Gabriele saying that worldwide, Marlene is predominantly a girl’s name, and the name should be approved for a girl in Germany without adding a second name.

Gabriele’s office is lined with baby name books from around the world. When she gets a case like this one, she’ll do online searches as well as pour through these books to try and find the clearest justification that it can be a stand-alone name, and that there are countries where it’s extremely popular. On her bulletin board are the birth announcements of dozens of babies who Gabriele has helped name. For me, it was a treasure trove looking at these cards and asking her what the rationale was for these names being rejected in the first place. She wrote a certificate justifying “Luca” as a name for boys without an additional more masculine name. She’s written one for “Kimi” for a boy as well because, as she explained, “Kimi” is popular for boys in Sweden and should be able to stand alone in Germany. Gabriele also got “Anderson” approved as a first name and found the justification for this in a 1974 copy of “What Shall We Name the Baby?” She helped a couple give their daughter the name “Helene Ruben” despite the standesamt’s initial protestations that “Ruben” was a boy’s name. While I was there, a woman came in to pick up a certificate in favor of the name “Caiane.” Gabriele agreed with the mother that it should be approved and she wrote up a certificate for the standesamt arguing for it. From Gabriele's perspective, "Caiane" should be allowed in Germany because “Cai” and “Caia” are already very popular, as is the “ane” ending for girls (Juliane, Emiliane, Christiane, etc…) “Caiane” was just putting these two already established naming trends together.

I really think there should be a New Yorker article written about a day in this office.

Gabriele also has hundreds of files leftover from the naming center of the GDR. (This is actually when the current center was founded). The files list every baby name that was contested during this time on small handwritten index cards. After some searching, we learned that the name "Nell" had actually come up during this time. We found two cases in the GDR where "Nell" that had been initially rejected and then eventually approved in 1988 (funnily, the year before I was born).


Part of what the German government, and Gabriele, are trying to do, is figure out what classifies as a name. In the United States, we have an easy answer for this and that is: everything. But in Germany (like in Morocco) there needs to be justification that this has a tradition of being a name. That’s why if “Kimi” is a boy’s name in Finland, it can now be approved in Germany as well. But sometimes, to be honest, it seems pretty arbitrary. Take for example, the idea that in Germany you can name your daughter "Mercedes" but not "Porsche." The argument is that the name Mercedes came before the car, and therefore it's an appropriate name for a human, but the name Porsche would always be referring to the car itself. But surely, somewhere in the world, there must have been at least one child who's family strung some syllables together and called Porsche as well? The line between the two feels rather wobbly and, frankly, if most people associate both "Porsche" and "Mercedes" with cars today, does it really matter which one was a name for humans first?

(Excuse the Vermonter liberal bias that seems to have just entered the room).

As you can imagine, there is a lot of disagreement within Germany itself on what a name can be. I thought a particularly interesting case comes up with the popular German actor Til Schweiger. He married an American woman and their children were born in the United States, giving them permission to name them whatever they wanted. One of his four kids is notably named, “Emma Tiger.” A few years ago, a couple in Germany wanted to name their child “Lilly Tiger” and were told by the standesamt that “Tiger” isn’t a name. Their justification for it? Til Schweiger says it is. They argued that although this baby had her name approved in the United States, Til Schweiger is a German actor and thus part of German culture and German history. In other words, his naming preferences should be able to be replicated by other Germans.

The name Lilly Tiger was eventually approved.

Emma's daughter, Lily, contemplating whether her life would be different if her middle name was Tiger.

The hours I spent in this office were fascinating. I continued to be fascinated when I went back a few days later to meet some of Gabriele’s colleagues and hear their perspectives. It is, I think, extremely interesting as an American to hear these debates. The whole time I was in her office I was thinking how wonderful it would be to have a job like Gabriele’s but I was also thinking how it would be a completely futile job in the United States. It seems somewhat ludicrous to an American, that a parent would have to come up with some kind of certificate in order to make a legal case for “Marlene” not having a middle name. On the one hand, it seems that now, at least with Gabriele’s approval, parents can use almost any name that they want. But this all leads me to wonder then, what the fuss is all about and particularly, how long will it last. When, for example, will enough people wanting to use the name "Porsche" turn it into a name that's acceptable for humans AND, most importantly, who decides?***

The bottom line is that it was thrilling to be surrounded by people who study this every day and who are so at the heart of these decisions. In other words, people who don’t bat an eyelid when I say I’m going to seven+ countries this year to study how people get their names.

Gabriele’s colleague, Dietlind Kremer, put it really well. I asked her what she tells her students about why they should study names and why names matter. “This is what I tell them,” she said. “I tell them to take a newspaper and a pair of scissors. Cut out all of the names. See what you’re left with.”

A huge thank you to Gabriele Rodrigeuz and Dietlind Kremer for giving me a glimpse into their world.

*This name was eventually approved by the German government.

**My details on this court case and this family were told to me second hand and I wasn’t able to find any articles about it, so take all this with a grain of salt.

***I just realized this blog post really makes it sound like I'm a big fan of the name "Porsche." That is really not the case. (No offense to the U.S.-born Porsches out there). It's just a good example of how arbitrary this seems sometimes. (While we're already in a footnote, are there any Ramona Quimby fans out there? By the time I was nine I had pretty much memorized the entire series because I would listen to the books on tape every night before I went to bed. For those of you who may not remember--her doll's name is Chevrolet).


  1. That was such an interesting post!
    AND because of you I already know now what to call my child:
    Porsche Mercedes Tiger Nell :D

  2. hey nell, Anne repeatedly tried to make me look at your blog and I eventually did - it is AWESOME! I will continue reading it.