What’s in a name?

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 21, 2006

Thanks for the introduction, and thanks for the opportunity to blogg about some issues that have been keeping me awake at night. I’m really glad to have this opportunity to write about them and discuss them on this forum, since my 8-months old does smile back but still it’s hard to get a good discussion going with him.

I’d like to start with a puzzle. A family of three who are living in Utrecht (the Netherlands), is driving home from a visit to Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Let’s call this family the family Pierik-Robeyns (yes, my family indeed). In Brussels, two Pieriks and one Robeyns get into the car. Two hours later, they arrive in Utrecht. They have not made a stop. No-one has left the car, and no-one has been picked up. In Utrecht, one Pierik and two Robeyns’s leave the car. How is this possible? More...
The answer is that there is a babyboy in this family who has two official names: in Belgium his name is Aaron Pierik, in the Netherlands his name is Aaron Robeyns, and in all other countries of the world he has two official names.

How can this be? As Chris mentioned when he introduced me, I am Belgian. My husband, Roland Pierik, is Dutch. When I was pregnant of Aaron, we decided to give him my family name. In the Netherlands, parents can choose to give either of the parents’ name, though the default for married heterosexual people is the father’s name. It is not possible to give double names We signed an official document stating that we both wanted give our child-to-be the surname Robeyns.

A few weeks afterwards, I called the Belgian Embassy in The Hague to ask what I had to do to give our child the Belgian nationality. I was informed that in Belgium the child would have the father’s name, since Belgian legislation does not allow parents the right to choose. In Belgium all children of whom the father is officially know must compulsory have the father’s name. I first thought this must be a joke, since it surely can’t be the case that one person can have two official names – but a few conversations with law professors and bureaucrats later I learnt that Aaron would have two names, and that there are many children with dual nationalities in a similar boat.

Now I’ve also learnt that the Belgian state has been reprimanded by the European Court of Justice in the case of Carlos Garcia Avello versus Belgium=() where a Spanish-Belgian couple had similar problems. The Belgian state now allows for parents of children with dual nationalities who have two different surnames to apply for a change of their Belgian name to their other official surname – but note that this requires additional work by the citizens and that the law itself has not changed (I haven’t collected the courage yet to start this procedure…)

I believe that two lessons can be drawn: one for Belgian politics, and one for the European Union. The lesson for the European Union is that she should not restrict herself to liberalizing economic markets, but also simplify and harmonize the more personal aspects of the mobility of people. The number of international couples will only increase in the coming years, and thus the number of children with dual citizenship will also increase. The idea that people live their entire life within one country, and that the nation-state can offer a consistent legal framework for these people, has long been outdated. Is it really so difficult for the countries of the European Union to agree that each country will respect the nomenclature legislation of the country where the child has first been registered? In this way the European Union would make herself useful for the ordinary man and woman, who are now often having the impression that Europe is mainly concerned with the interests of the economy.

The lesson for Belgium is that the surname legislation has, once again, to be put on the political agenda. The current Belgian surname legislation is the most restrictive of Europe (together with the Italian legislation, it seems). Under the pretext of tradition or administrative simplicity, the parents are denied the liberty to choose which name they want to give to their child. Why does the Belgian Government have to interfere with this personal choice? I can’t see any good reason not to let the parents choose whether they want to give their child the father’s name, the mother’s name, or both. The legislator can still impose some restrictions, for example that all children of the same family should have the same family name, or the restriction that a name can consist of two names at most. Such a liberalizing of the nomenclature legislation would not only make the life of children with two nationalities much easier, it would also allow those parents who think that the current Belgian nomenclature legislation is patriarchal or conservative the possibility to make a choice that is more in line with a philosophy of life that values the equality of the father and the mother, also at the symbolical and discursive level.

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Jacob Christensen » WTF…! (2)
08.23.06 at 4:21 pm

{ 29 comments }

1

Steve 08.21.06 at 2:24 pm

“The legislator can still impose some restrictions, for example that all children of the same family should have the same family name, or the restriction that a name can consist of two names at most. Such a liberalizing of the nomenclature legislation would not only make the life of children with two nationalities much easier, it would also allow those parents who think that the current Belgian nomenclature legislation is patriarchal or conservative the possibility to make a choice that is more in line with a philosophy of life that values the equality of the father and the mother, also at the symbolical and discursive level.”

What if I think those rules that you approve of are conservative, or patriarchal? Why shouldn’t I be able to name my child whatever I want, given that you insist on wanting to name your child whatever you want (you want Aaron Robyens, I want Aaron Chickensandwich with his sister Josephine OrangeJuice). As far as I can tell, there is no principled difference between us; its merely a pragamatic difference; enough people still think Aaron Chickensandwich is silly enough to be illegal, and enough people don’t think Aaron Robyens is silly enough to be illegal.

Steve

2

Steve 08.21.06 at 2:29 pm

By the Way:

What would be the last name of a child in Belgium if it is conclusively known that the father of the child is not the husband of the couple?

Steve

3

Eszter 08.21.06 at 2:32 pm

Welcome, Ingrid.

This is very interesting. So what happens if the identity of the father is unknown?

4

Ingrid 08.21.06 at 2:48 pm

I’m actually not sure that I have good arguments to argue against liberalising surname legislation completely; but perhaps someone else can come up with good arguments to restrict the legal options to either existing names or the names of the parents or something similar.
But categorically denying the possibility to give one’s child the mothers name is simply discrimination along gender lines. If the law would be that parents had to take the shortest name, or the name which came first in alphabetical ordering, I would have less of a problem, even though those laws would be silly, in my view.

To the best of my knowledge, in Belgium the husband of a married couple is always the legal father of the child, even if both of them know that he is not the biological father. Perhaps there are lawyers out there who can tell us about the exceptions.

If there is no known father, then the child can have the mother’s name. Hence having the mother’s name in Belgium either means the mother is a single mother, or a lesbian mother, or she is together with a man but not married to him and he has not legally recognised the child before the birth.

5

Richard Bellamy 08.21.06 at 2:59 pm

enough people still think Aaron Chickensandwich is silly enough to be illegal, and enough people don’t think Aaron Robyens is silly enough to be illegal.

The “silliness” test is explicitly the law in Germany, in which the Standesbeamters is in charge of determining whether a given name is too silly to give to your child, and will refuse to allow any name which is, for example, hyphenated, or a brand name. (see linked WSJ story).

6

Isabel 08.21.06 at 3:04 pm

And all this using one single language (Dutch/Flemish)! I know a Portuguese/Belgian couple whose son has an entirely different name (including the Christian name, Bernardo/Bernard) in each of the two countries.

And yes, if a child is borne of a mother who is not living with her legal husband but with another man (the biological father of the child), the only way out is to declare the child born of “unknown mother”, so that both the biological parents can recognise him/her. Belgium is not the only place where it works like this. But twenty something years ago, it was even more complicated, something involving adoption by both parents (the mother too!), a “council of family”, etc, all sorts of ways of protecting property according to the Code of Napoleon.

7

Steve 08.21.06 at 3:10 pm

Do women in Belguim generally take their husband’s name when they get married?

In other words, does the family generally always have the same last name, or since the child has to have the father’s name, is it common for a woman and her child to have different last names?

Steve

8

Tim McG 08.21.06 at 3:27 pm

The idea that people live their entire life with one name has long been outdated. What is the problem with having two different names in different contexts? My wife goes by her maiden name in business and legal contexts but (I think to get my goat) insists occasionally on using mine under social circumstances. (To get her back, I go by hers.)

I’ll be a conservative (from before the days when that was a dirty word) and argue that the market will take care of issues for things like bank accounts and credit reports, and that we should preserve endearing archaisms like this, rather than introducing new regulation to solve them.

(Oh, wait, that means I’m having it all three ways: a market solution, avoidance of new regulation, and preserving old regulation that’s a burden the rich can easily avoid!).

Seriously, it’s silly that there are any laws at all about what you can name your kids other than the technical issue of what the doctor can record. Anything alphanumeric. If your parents would name you something out of the ordinary, they would, I’m sure, give you an upbringing to go along with it, and either the courage to deal with it, or a slew of problems you’d have with or without a goofy name.

Regulations like this mark a failure of society to believe in its own power to correct foolishness.

9

ingrid 08.21.06 at 3:31 pm

Steve, I don’t know the statistics but very few women would take their husband’s name. Either they hypenate their name with their husband’s, or the simply keep their own name. I think the latter is the most common among the women of my generation. Hence in this case the mother does indeed have a different name from her children.

10

marcel 08.21.06 at 4:15 pm

My children, now 21 & 18, have different last names. I won the coin toss (3 out of 5) when my wife was pregnant with our son-to-be (although we did not yet know that that is what he was), and he and I have the same surname. That toss also decided the surname of all the rest of our to-be children, so my daughter has the same last name as my wife. Each has the other’s surname as a middle name:

Johnny Ecks Why, and Susie Why Ecks.

The only time this ever caused them any difficulty was when they were in early grade school, roughly ages 6 & 8, and other kids mildly harassed them about this, wondering why, if they were brother and sister, they had different last names. They briefly complained about this (i.e., our choices, not other kids’ behavior) then.

My mother clearly thought it a bit too precious back in 1985, and acquaintances ask about it now when they hear about it.

A teammate of my daughter’s once asked if I am her “real” father, since we have different last names; anyone who has seen us next to each other has no question about that (to my daughter’s misfortune).

The kids have always been much closer than either my wife and her sisters, when they were kids, or my sisters and me, when we were kids – no question that they know they are sibs, and like that fact.

So I don’t know why there is any good reason that The legislator can still impose some restrictions, for example that all children of the same family should have the same family name…

11

Tracy W 08.21.06 at 4:40 pm

Is it a problem for your son to have two official names?

People in NZ can call themselves whatever they want as long as it’s not done with intent to deceive. I kept my surname on marriage, but my in-laws regularly send letters addressed to me but with my husband’s surname – is that possibly creating a legal problem down the line?

12

John Quiggin 08.21.06 at 5:48 pm

“People in NZ can call themselves whatever they want as long as it’s not done with intent to deceive. “

The same is true in most countries deriving their legal system from England. Notable US examples are Muhammad Ali and Judy Chicago, but lots of ordinary people change their names.

In Australia you can register a change of name by something called a deed poll, but this isn’t legally necessary. However, as security restrictions on things like passports and driving licenses get tighter, the hassle involved in changing your name is increasing.

13

Z 08.21.06 at 6:17 pm

To the best of my knowledge, in Belgium the husband of a married couple is always the legal father of the child, even if both of them know that he is not the biological father. Perhaps there are lawyers out there who can tell us about the exceptions.

In France, the system is similar. In fact, if I read our civil code correctly, if the child “a la possession d’état d’enfant légitime” (i.e if the husband acts like his father) then no-one, even the child and/or someone pretending to be the father, can contest the paternity. If he hasn’t (e.g if the father has no relation with him), then a whole bunch of people can contest the paternity. This seems seriously twisted to me.

Going to your larger point, my favourite example is the case of a german woman who sued a french man for several years of child support on the basis of german law without having ever told him he had a child. I believe he had to pay, even though the french law granted at that time only two years to the mother to seek the father. This period has been extended to ten years very recently, but I believe german laws allow an indeterminate period.

14

Gene O'Grady 08.21.06 at 10:30 pm

On the situation where the husband of the woman is (presumably deliberately) not the father of the child, the classic English solution as used by Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton was to register their daughter Horatia as Nelson’s child by an unknown mother. Perversely enough, she apparently grew up insisting that Sir William Hamilton was her real father.

15

Isabel 08.21.06 at 10:44 pm

I hate some market solutions for these things: in Portugal, the phone directory is… owned?…run? by an American company. Anyway, the point is that it applies an American logics (three names: the first one, the last one, and one middle one) to a Portuguese reality (often 2 given names, mother’s name, often double, and father’s names, often double). Considering that women’s names are very often Maria something, with Maria being non descriptive and therefore skipped in everyday life, that means that I have to pay extra to be listed under the name I usually use and everybody recognizes: my SECOND given name and my father’s (double) name. Sheeesh.

16

john henry 08.21.06 at 10:52 pm

I’m not sure what the problem is. In Quebec (Canada), the law states that a woman SHALL retain her maiden name upon marriage on all legal documents, and their children may take either surname or a combination of both. The grandchild situation consequently becomes even more complicated. (In the case of a child of an unmarried couple or a father “unknown”, the mother can legally assign her own surname with no problems, if she so wishes). The law has existed for several years now, yet, society has not fallen apart or become unworkable. It causes some problems when a family migrates to another Canadian province or another country, but not enough to cause a change in the law. Seems it is all a matter of perspective.

17

Scott Martens 08.21.06 at 11:17 pm

In Belgium, the legal husband of the mother of a child is by definition the father of the child. Legally repudiating the child is, as I understand it, not currently allowed in the law. There was some discussion on the news a couple months back of a man who has been legally separated from his wife for some time, but who is now the legal father of her child by her new boyfriend, even though neither he, the mother, and the real father of the child all object to this outcome.

And, in Belgium it is nearly impossible to legally change your name, including for women who want their husband’s name. Until recently, it required a bill to be introduced in Parliament specifically changing your name. My wife is confronted with this problem. She still had her pre-marriage US passport when we moved here and has not been able to change her legal name since the first time the immigration authorities entered it into the computer.

This is dumb, and it’s a holdover from the dark ages. But try passing family and personal status legislation in practically any country in the West and you’re wading into a pool of piranas. So nothing gets done.

18

John Quiggin 08.22.06 at 3:08 am

“But try passing family and personal status legislation in practically any country in the West and you’re wading into a pool of piranas. So nothing gets done.”

Coming back to Ingrid’s post, the emergence of the EU makes the current situation untenable, without providing an obvious and immediate way out. Past experience suggests that some way of muddling through will be found. Perhaps, for example, some aspect of Belgian law will be found to violate human rights, and require change.

At this point, I realise I was going to write “and so the Belgian Parliament can change the law and blame Brussels”, but that seems kind of unlikely. In Australia, State governments blame “Canberra”, and the Territory government blames “the Feds”. What’s the Belgian analog?

19

bad Jim 08.22.06 at 3:22 am

May I offer up a little California 60’s history? Some families with which my family was familiar had parents who engaged in such promiscuous serial and mutual monogamy that their mingled offspring shared several parents. The kid were typically tagged with the father’s name, but generally recognized as belonging to a larger clan, at least to those in the know.

My sister reverted to her maiden name after her divorce. Her older children bore her first husband’s name and her youngest bears that of her second, which can prolong introductions somewhat.

There would be a certain sense, in a truth-in-advertising sort of way, if boys reliably carried patronyms and girls matronyms: here’s your Y chromosome, here are your mitochondria. Of course it’s a wise child who knows its own father … but it’s usually easier and often more useful to track the father who takes responsibility.

So: bestowing paired names on kids may turn out to be as useful to your future neighbors as it may be gratifying to your relatives.

20

Frances 08.22.06 at 4:04 am

At this point, I realise I was going to write “and so the Belgian Parliament can change the law and blame Brussels”, but that seems kind of unlikely. In Australia, State governments blame “Canberra”, and the Territory government blames “the Feds”. What’s the Belgian analog?

We blame Straatsburg.

To the best of my knowledge, in Belgium the husband of a married couple is always the legal father of the child, even if both of them know that he is not the biological father.

And this until nine months after they separated, or so I’ve been told.
Another perversion is the case of unmarried couples. When a father is registered, a child will automatically get his name. So to be able to give the mother’s surname, you need to have an “unknown father” on the birth certificate.
At least it’s better than the even darker ages when the father in said unmarried couple actually had to adopt his own child. Reason: only within a marriage there is certainty of who fathered the child. (Which of course is the kind of logic that is not.)

The regulations Ingrid proposes at the end of her post, are actually the ones that were meant to pass parliament a couple of years ago, but never made it — I think on grounds of (gasp) tradition and amateur genealogical research. How would one be able to make a family tree if we all give out names like we choose? That’s what the records are for, I guess. The Icelandic way of namegiving kind of undermines this argument (name of father/mother with dottir/son added, e.g. Björk Gudmundsdottir).

The “silliness” test is explicitly the law in Germany
Belgium has a similar regulation, but it isn’t used that much. The official didn’t object when a father gave his new-born daughter the second name Stella after too much beer.

21

ingrid 08.22.06 at 6:54 am

Thanks for these very interesting comments !

Marcel’s point is taken; I agree that I might even be too restrictive in the legal changes that I propose. I guess I’m allowing my thinking to be constrained by political feasibility…

Scott Martens is right about the piranas in Belgium. What may look like ‘normal legislation’ or in fact the actual leglisation in many other western countries, seems impossible to have a chance of becoming Law in Belgium.

Frances rightly points out that there have been proposals to change the surname legislation in Belgium in the last decade — female parlimentarians of most parties made a joint proposal, but it did not get the support of the male parlimentarians and coalition partners.

While I feel really sorry for Belgium and the Belgians, I also think there are lesssons to be learnt not just for Belgium, but also for other countries — for example, in the Netherlands one is not allowed to give double names (both parents), which creates problems for children who are Dutch and also Spanish, Portugese or from one of the Latin-American countries. I simply think there is no valid argument to allow governmemt interference in this area.

22

ingrid 08.22.06 at 7:09 am

Would it be a problem to have two different surnames? In Aaron’s case, it would not make a difference as long as he doesn’t do anything “official” in Belgium. Because in the rest of the world he can use his ‘Dutch name’ (Robeyns), and he can simply pretend that he doesn’t have another legal surname. (This is actually how we are dealing with this right now).
But for the Belgian authorities, he is not Aaron Robeyns, but Aaron Pierik. Hence in Belgium he is, by law, obliged to use his ‘Belgian name’. If he were to perform an official or a legal act in Belgium, such as buying a house, studying, getting married, etc. he would most likely need some official documents (like a birth certificate, high school diploma’s etc.) where his name would be Aaron Robeyns. So I can see many scenarios where his two different names would create trouble indeed.

Of course, if the Dutch and Belgian authorities weren’t so bureaucratic, it would all be easier. But I know from doing the paperwork for our marriage, that trying to undertake some international acts can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

23

franck 08.22.06 at 7:29 am

This is the kind of European craziness that makes Americans shake their heads. I know until recently that there was actually a list in France of approved names, and this was specifically used to prevent people from giving their kids Basque (or Breton, etc.) name. Similarly in Franco’s Spain. This is still an issue in Turkey, where people are regularly sanctioned for giving their kids Kurdish names, even though now such sanctions are at least on paper illegal. It was a big deal in communist Romania and Bulgaria, where Hungarian and Turkish names were verboten.

I think one does have to look at this in terms of efforts to create a homogeneous nation-state and control the inhabitants. It goes back a long way – the reason so many Jews have Germanic names comes from laws mandating that Jews have last names. They resisted because Moses didn’t have a last name, so people like E.T.A. Hoffmann just assigned them – after all, who would voluntarily pick a name like Wieseltier or Fischbein?

24

Peter Clay 08.22.06 at 8:13 am

Every time I hear about this sort of nonsense – names being the intellectual property of the state, in effect – I’m glad I live in a common-law country. Unfortunately, if this stuff is ever “harmonised”, it’s likely to be harmonised to the most restrictive law. After all, name control laws make it easy to manage national identity databases…

25

Isabel 08.22.06 at 10:21 am

Ingrid, This Belgian/Portuguese kid that I know is registered in Belgium and in Portugal with two different names: the Belgian one consists of 3 given names (probably one is Ghislain to protect him against convulsions!) and his father’s name; the Portuguese one consists of one given name, his mother’s name (or names) and his father’s name. I suppose he will use one or the other according to the country in which he is doing business.
Incidentally, I’ve always thought that Portuguese and Spaniards were very enlightened to keep their mothers names until I found out that it was due to the Inquisition’s desire to keep track of (matrilinear) Jews!

26

Tim McG 08.22.06 at 3:34 pm

The historical background for all this is interesting (does Napoleonic control over family life go back to the Revolution, or further, or start with the man himself?), but I’m curious about prospects for improvement.

It seems like an ideal case for removal of governmental intrusion (the analogy I’m thinking of is US anti-miscegenation laws), but on what grounds? Making it a “human rights” case seems to me to either blow out of proportion the inconvenience or to diminish the concept of human rights (on an intellectual level) and also to sow the seeds of resentment at a solution imposed from outside. Recall also Mearsheimer’s thesis (no, not that one!) that nationalist wars aren’t due to fear or “deep-seated hatreds” but resentment at the loss of what seems unique and important about one’s country.

I suspect that a few narratives of “they tried to take my child at the border!” would go a long way!

27

clew 08.23.06 at 1:44 am

I am having a little hiccup of this kind entirely within the US. I changed my name by usage at seventeen; my current name is on my passport, my driver’s license, all my college records, all my credit cards and bank accounts, and the forms the IRS prints for me.

The Social Security administration has never recognized any of these. It has not until now been a problem; SSA, of all organizations, doesn’t need to identify me by *name*. But I just moved to California, where I must get a CA driver’s license; and the DMV requires that my DL info match my SSA info. I’ve filled out the paperwork for a ($300) legal change of name, in which I have to use my old name as my “present name” – and I’m afraid I’ll get to the courthouse and be asked for ID in my old name.

28

leederick 08.23.06 at 2:19 pm

Why should the EU set out to make it easy for people to be dual citizens?

I get the feeling most of them are taking the piss. My favourite example is Channel Islands/UK dual citizenship, which lets you use UK universities and hospitals while maintaining the ability to opt out of paying them via membership of your own little statelet. Isn’t it just a way to get the benefits of two citizenships while maintaining the ability to opt out of the disadvantages of one of them? I’m sure it’s nice for people who have it, but I can’t see why the rest of us should be welcoming about it.

29

Ingrid 08.23.06 at 3:18 pm

leederick, I can see that one should not have double benefits if one doesn’t want to contribute twice; but citizenship is not just about voting and a passport, it’s also an identity thing. Take Aaron’s case: he has one Belgian and one Dutch parent. We happen to live in the Netherlands right now, but it is equally conceivable that we will live most of our lives in Belgium. In fact, in Aaron’s case, both citizenships were _compulsory_; I’ve thought of dropping his Belgian citizenship in order to solve the problem with his double name, but this was not a legal option. So if countries _force_ dual citizenships on people, it should not make their life harder than for people with one citizenship.

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