From Iceland — The Name Game

The Name Game

Published June 13, 2003

The Name Game

Þóra and Gunni were just your average carefree shopaholic Icelandic couple.
Theirs was a tender love story that had now produced a child. After much discussion and many wild suggestions they finally settled on Albert. Þóra was a big black and white minstrels fan. They plumbed for a traditional naming ceremony, complete with a white christening gown lovingly handed down from generation to generation. They chose the location from one of Iceland’s many picture postcard timber churches. On the morning of the service all concerned converged on the little prayer house to welcome the newest member of the family.
As the priest began to recite the verses, the precious child poised over the font in readiness for anointment, all hell broke loose. An Icelandic swat team on a mission for the ministry of culture sprang in to action. Storming the church armed to the teeth, they swooped on the offending couple. Manhandled to a waiting vehicle and whisked to the nearest correctional facility they now regretted bitterly their audacious crime. Weeks later they stood condemned in the dock found guilty of possession of an illegal name with intent to supply.
Readers will be relieved to know that the tragic tale of Þóra and Gunni exists only in the fevered imagination of your correspondent. A surreal hypothesis based on taking Icelandic law to its logical conclusion, for believe it or not, it’s not legal to call your child any old name. There exists deep in the bowels of bureaucratic government a sacred list of acceptable but solely Icelandic titles from which to choose. Failure to comply with this helpful aid does not, admittedly, result in an elaborate sting operation at the water font. Such a transgression does however incur an annual fine or levy for as long as your child is rebelliously registered. In practice this is not a common occurrence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred a chosen name will not cause a problem. If however you wish to go with Brad, Dave or even Catsmeat Potter Perbright, then you have a problem.
My childish parody of these regulations should not of course obscure the fact that there is a certain merit in these seemingly bizarre laws. Though colonised for centuries by Denmark, Iceland retained its own language, an achievement of which they are justifiably proud. Iceland, however is a small, relatively powerless country, continually bombarded with foreign popular culture, particularly from the United States.
There is a determination in the face of this onslaught that the beautiful language be protected and it purity not be sullied by foreign words and names which cannot be properly conjugated in the complex grammar system.
It is the tradition that each offspring’s surname is made up of his/her father’s name, Jónsson (son of Jón), Jónsdottir(daughter of Jón) and so on.As a result it’s quite common to have a married couple with two kids all bearing different surnames. To add to the confusion, some families also take an additional clan or family name. Sometimes this makes names just downright unfeasible. Take my wife’s name for instance. Her full title runs something like this Ingunn Kristjana Vilhjálmsdottir Snædal,a mouthful in any language. To cap it all, should I in the fullness of time wish to become a citizen of this great land, I would have to take on, officially at least, a full Icelandic title. How about Þormóður Kraki Sigurbjartur Boyce? Having always been displeased with my rather staid moniker it is possibly my only opportunity to acquire a more racy title.
John Boyce

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