Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


What’s in a name? Part II

On August 20, 2013, I posted an article entitled “What’s in a name?” about the Baby Messiah case in Tennessee in which a bench officer unilaterally changed a toddler’s first name in a family law case involving determination of paternity and child support. The bench officer stated that she based her decision to change the toddler’s name from Messiah to Martin as Tennessee had so many Christians, and many people in the state she believed would be offended by the toddler’s given name.


My article received many comments from readers, the overwhelming majority of whom agreed that a sitting bench officer had no business changing a child’s given name, especially on religious grounds. There was one reader (an eighth-decade Episcopalian minister turned evangelical) who wrote that while he “was preparing [himself] to be offended by [my] article, he thought it was well written.” Which I took to be a sort of backhanded compliment offered, to my relief, without his religious views or objections on the matter.


After reviewing the mail on the issue and upon further reflection, I realized perhaps even more than before just how important our given names are to our sense of self in general and our sense of identity in particular — perhaps even more important than our surnames, which are handed down without much agency or deliberation.


Our surnames are bestowed upon us by ethnic background or region, and historically, by the professions of our forbears (Shoemaker, Blacksmith, Kaufman [meaning trader], Cohen [indicating one from the rabbinical caste], etc.) However, our given names clearly represent choices, those of our parents. They thus represent a far more important element of familial desire and identity than our surnames, and are often selected based on the popular first names du jour, on some special family meaning, in memory of a deceased loved one, or on a myriad of other modern-day and often odd choices (Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple, anyone?)


Throughout all but the most recent history of immigration to the United States, many given names were changed upon arrival at Ellis Island by lazy or bigoted entry officers, following perhaps the same rationale expounded by the Tennessee bench officer in the Baby Messiah case. My paternal grandfather, for example, arrived at Ellis Island with his wife and three teenaged children in the midst of WWII. His first name was Ignatz, at the time a fairly common Austro-Germanic given name. However, the immigration officer on duty that day at Ellis Island simply didn’t like his first name or couldn’t pronounce or spell it, and thus my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who arrived stateless in the U.S. and had already lost so much, had then also lost his first name that day with the brisk stroke of a careless man’s pen. My grandfather thus unceremoniously became Nat, and he kept that name for the rest of his very long and abundantly happy life. In retrospect (and my grandfather never once complained about the name change — he often just rehashed the story as part of family lore), it seems an extremely small price to pay: losing one’s given name in exchange for the chance of entry into a hospitable country and a good life while ethnic annihilation is happening elsewhere. But that’s not really the point.


The point is choice. It is always about choice in a democracy. As a law professor friend of mine says repeatedly in her Constitutional law classes, “Democracy without freedom is like two wolves asking a sheep, What’s for lunch?”


It is also the freedom to make a bad choice. And this is true even in the commercial sector. I recall many moons ago when Chevrolet began marketing a midsize car called the Nova. That was just fine for the US market. However, Chevrolet then started exporting it south of the border. That, Chevrolet quickly learned, was a huge problem, as “no va” in Spanish means “it doesn’t go.” Not your best bet for a motor vehicle. And then there was the Korean restaurant my husband and I loved mainly because it was the site of our first date. We returned there regularly out of a sense of nostalgia and the need for fiery bulgogi and burning kimchi. Years later, the restaurant changed hands and the new owner changed the decor. He also had the brilliant idea to rename the restaurant. When I drove by one day a few months later, I could hardly believe my eyes. In a city that hosts an enormous and vibrant Latino population, the new owner chose the name Moku, which in Spanish means, to be anatomically correct, nasal detritus. Predictably, the restaurant closed shortly thereafter.


The freedom to keep one’s given name and bestow names upon our children seems so obvious that the discussion almost seems absurd. But clearly it is a discussion that must take place, as a judicial maverick, under color of authority and a sense of religious self-righteousness, has purported, however misguidedly, to have a legal basis on which to alter this most basic freedom of parental choice and identity. Personally, I would never name a son of mine Messiah, chiefly because I don’t share the religious connection, and from a more pragmatic perspective, I would fear that as he grew up his friends would call him Messy or Mess for short. Nevertheless, I hope Baby Messiah’s mother’s appeal in Tennessee to unload the name Martin will be successful in short order. Because what’s in a name is a fundamental personal choice — the choice to bestow it, to keep it, or to change it.

Date Posted:  Sep. 13 2013