Published July 10, 2014
Harriet Cardew, the adorable ten-year-old daughter of an Englishman and an Icelandic woman, has been in the world news lately because the Icelandic National Registry refused to approve a passport for her because it does not approve of the name Harriet. Nor did it much care for her brother being called Duncan. In fact, the National Registry only referred to them by the Icelandic words for “girl” and “boy” because their names did not meet the required standards of Icelandic naming laws.
I assume that naming law was adopted from the Napoleonic Law Code on Making Ten Year Old Girls Cry.
Of the many odd things the Icelandic state does, few make foreigners as perplexed as its insistence to prescribe a list of acceptable baby names. This is a postcolonial hangover from the struggle for independence from Denmark. Icelanders who travelled abroad during the colonial era would often adopt family names and some would keep and pass them on after moving back to the island. To people who care about such things, that kind of anarchic introduction of family names to the Icelandic naming conventions was intolerable. The basic, official system of Icelandic names is that children are given a patronymic at birth, which is the name of their father in the genitive case, with -son or -dóttir added. So if Kjartan has a daughter named Otkatla, she will be Otkatla Kjartansdóttir.
Didn’t Otkatla Kjartansdóttir slay Ferrimir, Thane of the Duskland, at the Battle of Thrumptybrumptybrump?
Patronyms are not restricted to fantasy novels, being standard in Russia, Mongolia, Saudi-Arabia, Malaysia and Ethiopia. But Iceland is the only state in Western Europe still using patronyms. Icelandic nationalists in the 19th Century feared that Iceland would lose its social characteristics and become more like Denmark. So, starting in the 1880s, some Icelandic politicians proposed laws that would standardise Icelandic names.
So this is an old law that’s a relic from a different time?
Oh no, the current naming law was adopted in 1991, largely because the old law from 1925 was considered to have been applied too liberally. In fact, public outcry at the strictness meant the law was made more lenient in 1996, for instance allowing names of foreign origin as long as they fit easily into Icelandic grammar. That is what poor Harriet is dealing with, as her name has been judged by those who decide these things to be a poor fit to the rules of Icelandic grammar and spelling.
Some would consider the bigger issue of: Why are you making a ten-year-old girl cry, you monster?
There is nothing to indicate that Harriet Cardew has cried about this. But point taken, it is rather harsh to deny children the right to have their name recognised by the state. Her parents have been fighting to have her and her brother’s names officially registered by the government. In 2010 the Icelandic Naming Committee denied their petition on the basis that they were not grammatical and that not enough other Icelanders had been given those names before. However, they did suggest that if Harriet and Duncan were given middle names from the list of approved names, everything would be fine and dandy.
Wait, wait, wait… there’s a Person Naming Committee? Is there also a Place Names Bureau and a Pet Names Council?
There is a Place Name Committee, but no Pet Name Committee so you do not have to seek anyone’s permission if you want to name your cocker spaniel Willy Wanka. Which brings us to the other facet of the naming law, forbidding names likely to cause a child to be made fun of. Most Icelanders are widely in favour of this, and similar laws exist in other Western European countries, such as Italy, Denmark and Germany. However, since this is a matter of personal judgment, it can cause odd decisions. For instance, the artist and musician Steinunn Harðardóttir applied recently to take up the middle name Eldflaug, which means rocket ship, but was denied that in the future unborn children might be given the same name and be mocked for it.
Yes, because what child would want to have rocket ship as a middle name? I mean besides every child ever. Harriet and Duncan would probably love it.
That could solve their passport problem. The issue with many aspects of the Icelandic naming law is too much is left unclear. The law is written in such a way that it causes unnecessary frustration and pain. Perhaps it would be best to scrap the whole thing and replace that part of the naming law with a form that says: Does the name you have chosen for your child rhyme with the words fart, poop or cockmobile? If yes, then name is disallowed.