What’s In A Name: The Laws That Apply When Naming Your Baby

close-up of infant baby wrapped in a blanket and smiling, blue filter.

Can you really name your baby that?!

Picking a baby name that everyone (from grandma to the grocery clerk) likes can be a fruitless, futile endeavor. Coming up with one that confounds the whole world is seemingly a lot easier. Take Elon Musk, chief of Tesla and SpaceX, and singer Grimes, who recently announced the birth of their daughter, Exa Dark Sideræl, or “Y” for short. The “Y” makes more sense when you know that their older son is named X Æ A-12. (Yes, we’re talking about their human son, not the name of a new car or spacecraft.) 

Sometimes, parents decide a name change is in order—like when celebrity couple Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott announced that they were going to change their son’s name from Wolf to one that better suits him. In other cases, though, a name change is not a matter of preference but of legality. 

Is a baby name with numbers and symbols legal?

Call it peculiar, perplexing, or sensationalistic, but one thing you may not be able to call X Æ A-12 is … legal. When it comes to baby names, the fact is parents don’t always have free rein to choose any name they like. There are laws that limit their choices. These laws vary by state, and they’re arbitrary at best, but they are laws that appear in the books. While some states have strict laws that prohibit obscenities, numbers, and names that are too long, other states have no restrictions.

Take laid-back California, which isn’t so laid back when it comes to baby names. In fact, the state won’t even allow accent marks and other diacritical marks in names like José. This restriction originated in 1986, when Proposition 63 established English as the California’s official language. Names must only contain “the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language with appropriate punctuation if necessary.” And guess where little X Æ A-12 was born? That’s right: the Golden State. 

It seems that for now, a California birth certificate can be completed with single dashes in the spaces for first, middle, and last names, and a legal name can be added later, which is exactly what Elon and Grimes have done for their son.

Will he ever need a legal name? Not necessarily. He won’t be arrested for not having one, but he will need one if he wants to obtain a Social Security number, passport, or driver’s license. His parents could consider tweaking his name a bit to make the legal cut, perhaps by spelling out some of the characters as David and Victoria Beckham did with their daughter, Harper Seven. 

Why are there laws about baby names?

Not only are baby name laws inconsistent across the country, but if they are meant to protect children from controversial or embarrassing names, they often miss the boat. For example, in a well-publicized New Jersey case, a couple named their son Adolf Hitler Campbell, which is somehow permissible under the state’s law. The law bans names that contain “obscenity, numerals, symbols, or a combination of letters, numerals, or symbols…”, but naming a child after a mass murderer is A-OK. 

In most cases, the United States is pretty relaxed about what you can name your child when it comes to the stigma or meaning a name may carry.

However there are some really bizarre cases where baby names have not been allowed in the good ol’ US. For example, in 2013, a Tennessee judge ordered that a baby’s name be changed to Martin instead of Messiah. Her reasoning: “The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” That reasoning was later overturned, however, and the baby’s name was changed back to Messiah.

And in Georgia, a couple eventually won a legal battle to give their daughter the surname Allah. The court’s original objection to the name wasn’t any implied meaning, but rather that neither parent had that last name. Plus we don’t have to look far for celebrities who chose rather unusual baby names that have gone unchallenged. Penn Jillette named his child Moxie CrimeFighter, and Nicolas Cage chose Kal-El Coppola, to name a few—all of those passed the legal test.

Whether or not naming moderation is the government’s business is up for debate. Usually, states challenge names for reasons of practicality; for example, a record-keeping software may only allow a certain number of characters or not allow numerical digits. In Arkansas, you can’t name your child Test, Unk, Void, Baby Boy, Infant, or a handful of other names, because its system won’t accept them. In Hawaii, parents can include symbols in names, but for each one, there has to be at least one number too. In New Hampshire, the baby’s first, middle, and last names can’t exceed 100 characters in total.

According to constitutional law expert Carlton F.W. Larson (writing in the The George Washington Law Review), baby naming “is a legal universe that has scarcely been mapped, full of strange lacunae, spotty statutory provisions, and patchy, inconsistent caselaw.” 

Are there naming laws in other countries?

Naming laws around the world vary even more and are often even more stringent than those in the United States. 

In France, for example, parents have been banned from giving their children names that would “lead to a childhood of mockery,” such as Prince William and Mini Cooper. In Germany, a court ruled that a couple couldn’t name their child Stone because “a child cannot identify with it, because it is an object.” Möwe (“seagull”) was rejected as well, because the bird is “a nuisance and is seen as a pest and would therefore degrade the child.” In Denmark, parents must select from a list of pre-approved names, and if they want to use one that’s not on the list, they must get special permission. 

In any case, if you’re planning on having a baby, you may want to check the laws in your locale before you get too attached to a name. Of course, even if your favorite name doesn’t make the grade, nicknames are a whole other, unrestricted territory. Anyone who has ever had a sobriquet like Stinky or Pickle Pop may wish there were some more stringent laws governing them, too.

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