illegalnames

Some Working-Class Names Aren’t Just Looked Down Upon — They’re Illegal

But these laws, which stretch from New Zealand to Tennessee, are often more about oppression than public decency

In a blog post titled “Parents, Quit Naming Your Kids Foolishly,” pop-culture blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi takes aim at parents who give their children “stupid” names. “Parents needs to stop naming their kids after concepts, cars, designers or things they wished they had,” she vents. “Look at this list of Mormon names! SeaBreeze? WHY? I bet there’s a baby ‘Louboutin,’ except it’s spelled Loobootawn cuz his mama wanted them for her birthday and all she got was pregnant.” 

Ajayi then shares an anecdote about a Starbucks cashier she encountered whose name tag said “Money Jones.” “I was judging her parents HELLA hard,” she continues. “Did they name her ‘Money’ because they wanted the universe to give her lots of it? I mean, I don’t know her background, but that plan has yet to work out too well because she’s working at Starbucks.” After speculating a little longer about how broke Money Jones must be despite her flashy moniker, Ajayi concludes that “[h]er name just asks for unfulfilled potential.”

Like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, you probably know a “trashy” name when you see one — and if you don’t, you could always turn to Reddit. “Excuse me for my utter ignorance, but I just saw a comment that pointed out that a name sounded very poor and uneducated,” one redditor posted in a thread. “This made me wonder, is this an actual thing that I’m unaware of?” He explains that he and his partner just started trying for a baby, and they’re looking to steer clear of “trashy.” “Are there general guidelines on what counts as posh and what are ‘poor people names’?” he asks.

The commenters are of immediate assistance. Some respond with examples: Diamond, Laytyn and Jaxxsyn are low class; Eleanor, James and William aren’t. Others assist with general rules: Virtue names (Destiny), gem names (Crystal), luxury brand names (Bentley) and words spelled backwards (Nevaeh) are trashy, as are “made-up” names — as opposed to, I don’t know, names dug fresh from the earth. Creative spellings like “Deztiny” or “Krystal” earn extra trashiness points. Regional and temporal differences are of paramount importance. For example, Anglo-American names like Kevin and Mandy, innocuous in the U.S., signal a low-class background and even behavioral difficulties in Western Europe — leading one German teacher to state that “Kevin is not a name, it’s a diagnosis!”

Avery, a 23-year-old housecleaner from Vermont who goes by her middle name, remembers the moment she realized exactly how badly her first name was perceived. “I was telling a friend in high school that I don’t go by my first name because it’s white trash,” she tells me. “He set out to guess what it was, and the first Tier 1 White Trash name he guessed was Darlene — my name.” Avery says that this moment was wounding and part of a gradual awakening of her class consciousness. “I just became more and more aware of the fact that everybody in my class lived in town, had an actual house, a PlayStation and two parents to look after them, while I lived in a trailer in the boonies. I don’t even know where me thinking Darlene was white trash even came from, because I never met another Darlene in my life. TV probably.”

Making fun of low-class names is low-hanging comedic fruit, picked often. The 2012 film Ted contains a scene in which Mark Wahlberg’s character tries to guess the “white trash” name of the cashier Ted is dating — “Wait, any one of those names with a “-lyn” after it?” — and Down Under, annual lists of bogan baby names are routine fodder for commercial radio stations and local press (“bogan” is an Australasian slang term roughly equivalent to “redneck” or “white trash” in the U.S.). And black names deemed “ghetto,” especially those belonging to women, are so routinely subject to mockery that “Shaniqua” is an entire category of racist memes

But being laughed at is the least of it. As the Kevinismus example above attests, teachers hold preconceptions that children will misbehave or learn slowly depending upon their names. Dr. Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck knows this to be true, not only because of her own name, but because the topic is her academic focus: Her dissertation found that students with “distinctly black names” are subject to disrespect, stereotypes and low academic and behavioral expectations. “I had a teacher at a new-student orientation who threw her class list on the floor and started talking about how her test scores were going to be in the toilet,” Vandyck told NPR. “All it had were the students’ first names, last names and their gender. I thought I was missing paperwork, but the other teachers told me that it was the names that she was concerned about.” 

Isabel, a 24-year-old student from South East London, recalls a similar experience in high school. “I have a distinct memory of being 13 or 14 and hearing one of my teachers explain that she dreaded getting a class list with the name Paige on it, because they were supposedly always troublemakers,” Isabel tells me, explaining that she went to a comprehensive school in South London split between wealthy middle-class kids “who went skiing every February,” and working-class kids, “many of whom were eligible for free school meals.” “Certainly none of the middle-class kids were called Paige — in fact, they were almost all named after flowers,” Isabel continues, laughing. “The teachers had a barely-concealed belief that the ‘academic,’ ‘hard-working’ middle-class kids were no trouble at all, whereas the working-class kids and their parents were troublemakers.”

The preconceptions about people with low-class names extend beyond the classroom, too. A landmark resume callback study in 2003 called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found, in short, that they are, and the results of a later study are consistent with the hypothesis that low-class racialized names, not racialized names alone, make employers reluctant to interview applicants. “Lakisha and Jamal can denote socioeconomic status,” Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz reports in the Chicago Tribune, “and employers may have made assumptions about education and income rather than [just] race.” 

Shekhina, a 27-year-old data analyst from California, is familiar with the negative preconceptions that accompany a black-sounding name, even though she isn’t black herself. “All my life I’ve heard racist comment about my name, like, ‘Is that a black name?,’ ‘You don’t look black!’ or ‘Your name is ghetto,’” she explains. “Whenever I landed interviews from my resume, I’d often hear comments like, ‘You’re not who we were expecting!,’ because I’m a small Asian girl.” She tells me this happens “all the time.”

A low-class name not only risks putting its bearer on the wrong side of potential employers, it can put their parents on the wrong side of the law, too. Commonwealth countries like the U.K., Australia and New Zealand effectively ban names “likely to cause offence,” blocking 2nd, Yeah Detroit, Keenan Got Lucy and 4Real, and other countries maintain even stricter systems. In Germany, for example, you cannot use last names or the names of objects or products as first names (sorry Peppermint and Bentley). In Sweden, first names that can cause offense or “discomfort” aren’t allowed (Metallica, Superman and Elvis were all deemed beyond the pale). And Hungary, Denmark and Iceland maintain lists of names that parents are permitted to call their children, and any parent who wishes to give their child an unlisted name must petition officials to have it added to the list (low-class names haven’t fared well in this process, with Hungary rejecting Diamond, Jinx and Candy). 

America, land of the free, errs more on the side of freedom of expression, but various state laws do result in some names being blocked, such as Messiah in Tennessee and names with diacritical marks in California, where “José” is rendered “Jose” on official documents.

Naming laws are not only used to block low-class names, but also to enforce gender norms — in many of the countries that maintain strict naming laws, gender-neutral names are barred, and boys and girls must be given obviously masculine and feminine names respectively — and cultural cohesion (or homogeneity). Case in point: In Iceland, names must contain only letters in the Icelandic alphabet and be adaptable to Icelandic grammar rules, meaning names containing the letter “c” are blocked, and Muslim names have been banned in the Xinjiang region of China, attracting the ire of human rights groups.

Why would a government intervene to prevent a parent naming their child Diamond or Yeah Detroit? Often, according to judges and government officials, it’s to avoid hardship to the child. In an infamous case that garnered worldwide attention, a Family Court judge in New Zealand ordered a girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii to be put in court guardianship so her “embarrassing” name could be changed. (He also chastised parents who make ill-advised name choices more generally, noting that Midnight Chardonnay and names containing text message language particularly ruffle his feathers). “The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child’s parents have shown in choosing this name for her,” Judge Rob Murfitt said in his ruling. “It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap quite unnecessarily.” 

However, you barely need to scrape the surface to see how much decisions about “offense” and “embarrassment” are really decisions about taste and class. After all, parents aren’t prevented from calling their children Fanny, Humphrey, Mortimer and Edwina, no matter how badly kids with these names might fare in the school yard — only the Krystals and Chief Maximuses of this world are subject to registrar intervention and court hearings. And while judges are likely correct that kids with names like Metallica and Sharkeisha will suffer hardship in life, their logic is backwards. “The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name […] does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake,” Freakonomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argue. “But it isn’t the fault of his or her name. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don’t tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn.” 

In other words, names are indicators rather than causes of economic and social hardship, and if judges and government officials want Metallica and Sharkeisha to have a better chance in life, they’d be better off providing their families with high-quality housing, free education and comprehensive health care than simply banning their names. 

With the empathy explanation looking less likely, then, perhaps a better explanation is that names are blocked because of class anxiety. That this is at least partially true is made explicit when you consider a rule common to countries like Sweden, New Zealand and Australia that parents cannot use a name that unjustifiably resembles an official title or rank, which has led to official decisions against parents calling their children Justice, Major, Prince and Miss (Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Sir” also wouldn’t fly). “[The 1901 Swedish naming law] made it difficult for people to change their last names,” Michael Lerche Nielsen, assistant professor for the Department of Name Research at Copenhagen University, told the New York Times, “a move that was designed to appease the noble class, which feared widespread name-poaching by arrivistes.” (Emphasis added.) 

Naming laws aren’t intrinsically unreasonable, and placing some limitations on parents who want to call their children Anal, Adolf Hitler or BRFXXCCXXMNPCCCCLLLMMNPRXVCLMNCKSSQLBB1111 make manifestly good sense. But when questions about “offense,” “social hurdles,” “discomfort” and “embarrassment” are decided by middle- and upper-class government officials and judges in a way that disproportionately punishes poor and working-class families — as well as those with genderless and culturally heterogeneous names — the laws start to seem more oppressive. 

Especially because the open contempt with which some registrars and judges hold low-class names betrays their class anxiety, and their hand-wringing about the “hardship” these names cause their young beares misses the real cause, which is economic precarity. Prohibitions on names that resemble titles and brand names are especially punitive to poor and working-class families — probably by design — who often give their children names that demand respect by definition (a la Knight, Messiah and Bentley). 

What’s more, middle- and upper-class judges and officials who see names like Champagne and Messiah as embarrassingly uncouth are often blind to the level of love and consideration that’s gone into them. What they see as names that set up children with “social disabilities and handicaps” are designed by their parents to open up their futures — just as Luvvie Ajayi venomously speculated about Money Jones. Marijuana Pepsi’s mother wasn’t callous or indifferent to her child’s welfare, she “felt a kinship with [her] and like this name would take [her] around the world” — and she was right. As Cleveland Evans, former president of the American Names Society, told Salon, “If you are poor and wish for a better life for your kid, a name like Lexus declares that hope.”