What's in a name? A lot, if you live in Denmark

Letter from Copenhagen/ Brendan Killeen: I slumped in my designer chair and watched with interest as a subtle but definitive…

Letter from Copenhagen/ Brendan Killeen: I slumped in my designer chair and watched with interest as a subtle but definitive moment played out in front of me.

Relegated to the sidelines because of my relatively poor Danish, I was free simply to watch as my wife went through the motions of registering our new son's name with the government, via our local Lutheran church, which administers affairs associated with birth and death for all residents of Denmark.

The registrar discreetly slipped a list from her desk and checked both the first and middle name. The latter, a common Irish name, caused a momentary lift of the eyebrow, but apparently it was OK.

Just to be sure, she checked with the online version of the list maintained by the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs.


Both names turned up on that list, too, so that was that. Our son had a registered name to add to the CPR (national identity number) he had received within a half-hour of being born.

To be honest, I was disappointed. Ever since I had come across the Book of Approved Names in the waiting room at the maternity room, I'd been intrigued.

At first I thought it was just a book of names provided to inspire new parents. It's not. The book contains a list of Christian names approved in a complicated process that can involve the local church, two government ministries and a department at Copenhagen University. Believe it or not, Bono is on the list.

Since that day at our local church office, I have been trying to make sense of the naming laws in Denmark. It hasn't been easy.

After several failed attempts, I eventually made contact with the Registration Office at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, where three people are employed to accept new registrations and to begin the "approval" process for new names, among other things.

"So what is the purpose of the law?" I asked.

"The law is there to make sure children do not get names that will be a disadvantage to them in the future and to prevent a girl getting a boy's name and vice versa," explained the spokesman, who added that there were more than 7,000 names on the list.

"But who cares what name a child is given? Is it the government's business?" I asked.

He was unsure how to answer. "It's not our law. It was enacted by the Justice Ministry, and you will have to ask them," he said.

"What is the point of the naming law?" I asked the man at the Justice Department.

"It's historic," he said. "We have in Denmark laws for everything.

"I'm familiar with the fact that in other places there is not a law about names. But here we have one. You should contact the Institute for the Investigation of Names at Copenhagen University. They help in the approval process of new names," he said.

So I contacted the university. According to Prof Michael Lerche Nielsen, assistant professor at the Department of Naming Studies at Copenhagen University, the first law regulating names is 100 years old this year and was primarily enacted to end the complicated system of surname generation which was then common in Denmark.

Under this system the son of a man called Peter Hansen would be called Hans Petersen. This system of interchanging surnames within the same family was confusing, so the authorities decided to fix a last name for each family.

The surname law was also enacted to prevent commoners from adopting the "protected" surnames of the nobility and thus rising above their station.

Christian names were still the preserve of the local priest. However, this situation changed in the early 1960s when a priest in a small rural parish refused to name a child Tessa because he said it sounded like tisse, the Danish word for pee.

"It was obvious that the local priests couldn't be given jurisdiction over first names any longer, especially since immigration and a fondness for British names after the war resulted in a whole range of previously unheard of names in Denmark," said Prof Nielsen.

The law concerning first names, enacted in 1961, resulted in the present system whereby a list of approved names is kept and anyone wishing to add a new name must apply to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs through the registrar in their local Lutheran church. This goes for everybody living in Denmark irrespective of religion or nationality.

New names are passed on to Prof Nielsen, who spends much time tracing the authenticity or validity of the names. Last year he checked 1,100 names and declined 40 per cent.

"Today a parent who is from another country can suggest a name that is not on the list on the basis that it is a common name in their homeland," he said.

"I try to verify this as much as I can, but to be honest it is impossible for me to make a firm decision on every case. As it stands most of these names are passed.

"I do reject some, however. For example, we are having difficulty with the name Jordan at the moment because it is used as both a boy's and a girl's name elsewhere, and of course the Danish law wants us to separate boys' and girls' names. We can't have a name on both lists.

"Jordan is also a geographic name. It's also the name of a brand of toothbrush," he added, as if that somehow settled the matter.

Not everybody accepts these decisions. In the early 1990s parents who wanted to name their son Christophpher (with two ph's) were declined permission and went to court.

"They told the judge that they wanted a unique name for their son because he was unique.

"The case ran into problems because of a legal technicality and was abandoned. The name stood but was not added to the list," said Professor Nielsen, sadly.

At about midday today one Mary Elizabeth Donaldson from Tasmania will walk up the aisle at Copenhagen Cathedral and exchange the customary "I dos" with Crown Prince Frederick, the future king. She will walk back down the aisle as Crown Princess Mary of Denmark.

The new princess has publicly stated that she intends to have a large brood. As a foreigner, will the new princess be allowed to name her first born and the future heir with a good old fashioned Aussie name?

Will the Danish tenner be adorned with a King Bruce or Queen Kylie?

"Yes, the crown princess will be able to choose any name she wishes, but in her case nationality is not important.

"Royalty are technically above the law in Denmark so the crown prince and princess can choose whatever name they want," said Prof Nielsen, obviously relieved that it won't be his problem to adjudicate in such a weighty matter.

By the way, Noah Liam is very happy with his name. And so are the Danish authorities.