What’s in a Name

Messiah. That is the name that last month, a Tennessee judge deemed was inappropriate for a seven-month old baby, holding that « it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that person is Jesus Christ ». The judge entered an order changing the boy’s name to Martin. Most legal commentators have since argued that this decision is more than likely to be reversed on appeal, primarily in light of the religious underpinnings of the judge’s decision, which raise First Amendment concerns (according to the New York Times, the American Civil Liberties Union has offered to appeal the ruling on behalf of the child’s mother).

On the other hand, when a New Jersey couple named their son “Adolf Hitler Campbell” and their daughter “JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell”, the State did not intervene. New Jersey has very few restrictions on naming a child (symbols and numbers are a no-no – you can’t name your child R2D2) and the two names were A-OK according to the law books. The couple announced in June of this year that they are once again expecting and intend on naming their daughter Eva Braun Campbell…

Most countries have at least basic laws with regard to naming. A few years ago, a New Zealand case made headlines when the judge not only chastised the parents for their “very poor judgment” in naming their daughter “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii”, but made the child a ward of the Court. As of May 1, 2013, the New Zealand Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages has a list of 77 permanently banned names which includes “Lucifer”, “Sex Fruit”, and “Anal” (surprisingly, the names “Benson” and “Hedges” conferred upon twins a few years ago made it through, as did “Number 16 Bus Shelter”). For its part, Sweden refused the name “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116” (pronounced “Albin”). And Belgium refused to allow parents to confer upon their twin girls the names “Vagina” and “Clitorine”.

But to what extent should the law dictate what you can and cannot do with your name, or what you can name a child, or whether you can change your name after marriage or adoption ? Well, in Quebec, contrary to other Canadian provinces, the law is extremely stringent with respect to naming and name changes, and the Civil Code of Quebec contains an entire chapter outlining specific rights and obligations.

The Quebec Registrar of Civil Status reviews every single birth certificate filed in the province and may oppose a name it does not agree with. This has given rise to interesting – and entertaining – case law. Most students of law in Quebec will remember the case of Lavigne c. Beaucaire, [1996] R.J.Q. 1970, in which the Registrar of Civil Status filed a Motion asking the Court to declare that a couple not be allowed to name their son « Spatule », or spatula. The Motion was brought pursuant to article 54 of the Civil Code of Quebec, which provides :

54. Where the name chosen by the father and mother contains an odd compound surname or odd given names which clearly invite ridicule or may discredit the child, the registrar of civil status may suggest to the parents that they change the child’s name.

Although the parents testified in Court that their choice of the name Spatule referred to a beautiful bird and not the kitchen instrument, the Court granted the Registrar’s Motion, holding that most people would immediately think of a spatula in the usual sense, and therefore the name invited ridicule.

More recently, two parents contested the Registrar’s decision to disallow the name « Caresse » for their daughter, in Québec (Procureur général) c. Comeau, 2006 QCCS 5252. The Court sided with the parents and allowed the names “Caresse Minerva” to be inscribed on the child’s birth certificate.

Most surprising, however, is the Province of Quebec’s restriction on changing names after marriage. Article 393 of the Civil Code provides that « In marriage, both spouses retain their respective names, and exercise their respective civil rights under those names ». Not only must a person requesting a name change after marriage in Quebec demonstrate « exceptional » circumstances, but he or she must more often than not make this request by filing a formal motion in Court, a long and costly process.

In addition, it is far from certain that a motion to change names after marriage will succeed. For example, the Superior Court rejected the request for judicial review in Mereuta c. Directeur de l’état civil, 2010 QCCS 3890, despite the applicant’s arguments that she was not accepted into her Romanian in-laws’ family because keeping her maiden name went against their laws and culture. Similarly, in Lassken c. Directeur de l’état civil du Québec, 2010 QCCS 3113, the Court was unmoved by the applicant’s desire to bear the same family name as her children, noting that she was free to give them her own surname at birth instead of her husband’s, yet had chosen not to.

How much oversight should the law exercise over the choice of first names and surnames? Should the laws be more stringent with regard to naming another human being than they are with regard to changing your own name? The Quebec restriction on name change after marriage is often defended as a feminist move against the patriarchal notion that women must take their husband’s name, but are the limits imposed on a woman’s choice to change her name not just as patriarchal?


  1. I have a lot of sympathy for Quebec’s provision on children’s names. It’s a form of child abuse to stick a child with a name that’s bound to cause laughter, mostly derisive, or worse.

    As for adult names – I gather there are a lot of people (in other states than TN) called ‘Messiah’. Given that Spanish-speaking people give boys the name ‘Jesus’, I don’t see why a job description would be worse than the name of the occupant.

    I recall an Ontario court refusing to change a person’s name to Branch Jesus Christ. The papers did not report the reasons in detail, but one can imagine.