If you want to name your kid something weird like "Nutella" or "Strawberry" don't have a baby in France.
This weekend La Voix du Nord, a paper in northeastern France, reported that over the past three months a court in the Belgian border town of Valenciennes has blocked two families from naming their newborn daughters Nutella and Fraise (French for Strawberry), respectively.
"The name 'Nutella' given to the child is the trade name of a spread and it is contrary to the child's interest to be wearing a name like [that]," the judge declared, according to Time. "[It] can only lead to teasing or disparaging thoughts."
The court similarly opposed the name Fraise in a hearing earlier this month, tying it to the French idiom ramène ta fraise (a rude way of summoning someone), which they claimed could be used to tease her. Henceforth, the state decided, the girls will officially be known as Ella and Fraisine (a common girl's name in the 19th century).
The Valenciennes court was acting on a 1993 French law that allows parents to name their children whatever they'd like, but requires registrars to report any names that seem apt to cause the child duress to local prosecutors, who can challenge parents' choices in court.
This sounds odd sitting in America, where we have very few rules regarding what we can or can't name our kids.
Our own naming laws vary from state to state, only occasionally limiting the use of numbers, pictograms, and obscenities. And just a few states—California and Massachusetts, for example—restrict the use of diacritics or official length of names due to the technical constraints of record keeping equipment. (Other nations like China and Japan, with complex written characters, or Lithuania and Poland, with an insane number of diacritics, similarly restrict names for technical reasons.) But generally we allow people to use names like (and this is a real list):
Acne Fountain, Cash Whoredom, Fat Meat, Fly-fornication, Ghoul Nipple, In God We Trust, Leper, Loyal Lodge No. 296 Knights of Pythias Ponca City Oklahoma Territory, Moon Unit, Pilot Inspektor, Tiny Hooker, and Toilet Queen.
In 2013 alone, we named kids Cheese, Fairy, and Jag, which that court in Valenciennes would probably hate. And unlike the French, we've actually fired judges who tried to intervene in naming kids, as when one in Tennessee wanted to rename a child from Messiah to Martin, claiming that the kid's parents had set an unattainable and harmful standard with that sobriquet.
Yet laws regulating baby names are fairly common throughout most of the world. Many of them—from Iceland to Italy to Japan to New Zealand to bits of Latin America—are justified by local authorities citing the need to protect children against inherent psychological harm or ridicule.
That seems like a nice idea. But it's hard to pin down when (if ever) a name becomes abusive. Some academics believe that certain names can correlate to mental distress and overall crappier lives. Some believe just the opposite and credit those negative findings to confounding factors.
"Harmful or abusive names are too rare for us to have any real data on their effects," Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at New York University who writes on the effect of names, explained to VICE. "Early research thought that unusual names were psychologically harmful, but those studies were all flawed. More recent studies have not found any deleterious effects."
With little hard evidence to go on, governments and courts wind up making a lot of arbitrary judgments. France has, for instance, blocked parents from using brand names or the monikers of cartoons like Barbar and Titeuf, as well as obscenities in recent years. But it's unlikely that being named after a car or even a hazelnut chocolate spread will inspire ridicule beyond the norm.
"I think that a name is just another feature among an almost limitless list of possible targets that kids who want to bully can pick up on," says Conley. "Even if a name is fairly normal, a determined teaser can modify it or add a word to make it abusive."
"The response to teasing is not to change ourselves to make us blend into the furniture. It's to teach the potential bullies pro-social behavior."
Many laws wind up being (implicitly or explicitly) as much about regulating what is normal or retaining national cultural identity as they are about protecting children. Even those statutes not explicit in their culturally bound restrictions often descend from and retain aspects of laws that were, often making it difficult for people to name their children something out of the norm.
In Sweden, the current naming laws descend directly from those once used to prevent non-nobles from taking noble names. In Iceland, up until the 1990s the nation required immigrants to take on local names. Now they still require a name to fit the Icelandic alphabet, grammatical structure, and basic cultural milieu. In Morocco, up until recently the government just straight-up banned names from the often marginalized Berber minority. Meanwhile nations like Denmark, Germany, and Norway (and other European states) place so many restrictions on names—no last names as first names, no objects or products as names, no names that can't clearly be associated with one gender—that many people wind up choosing from big books of acceptable national names.
France too, before its 1993 amendment, largely restricted parents to a list of mostly Catholic saints' names. Such enforced homogeneity, as opposed to America's addiction to the bizarre, may make it easier for a kid with an unusual name to be teased, influencing courts' decisions about acceptable names. Although to their credit France is more liberal in their naming allowances than many of their neighbors, seemingly rejecting far fewer novel choices than, say, Denmark.
The hinky aspects of culture and fuzzy borders of when a strange name becomes harmful aside, it's hard to deny that some names just don't sit right. New Zealand is, for unknown reasons, a factory for these names. Parents there have, since 2001, tried to name their kids: 4Real, 5th, Fish and Chips, Lucifer, Mafia No Fear, Sex Fruit, Twisty Poi, V8, and Yeah Detroit.
In these extreme cases even people who would normally oppose restrictions on names might consider some kind of action appropriate, although folks like Conley don't think that would help the kids very much.
"I do think that individual cases can be determined, in the moment, to be abusive and unacceptable," explains Conley. "But if a parent chooses to name his kid, say, 'Shithead,' then just blocking the name choice legally solves what is probably the least of that kid's problems."
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.