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Ask Hans-Torsten: Baby names

Hans-Torsten Richter offers advice on navigating the Standesamt and getting your baby's name accepted, especially in the case when your name of choice is something more original than Florian or Julia.

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Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected].

Dear Hans-Torsten,

I’m an American living in Berlin, eight months pregnant. My German boyfriend and I are arguing about whether or not we can name our daughter “Lake” (that’s where she was conceived). He says we’ll never get it past the Standesamt (registry office) because it denotes a thing and doesn’t make the child’s gender clear. I’ve asked everyone, but no one seems to know the rules. WTF?!

– Tiffany Johnson

Hans-Torsten: German parents put a lot of effort into choosing kids’ names, but they usually just end up with classics like Florian or Julia, thinking it’s better stay on the safe side, especially since changing your name in Germany is virtually impossible.

You’ll find plenty of poorly researched online articles in English on Gemany’s borderline fascist policy on verboten baby names – creative or just foreign names that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow elsewhere. The reality is more complicated, and mainly depends on the Standesamt bureaucrat you end up with when registering a name – which must be done within a month of the birth. Guided by German common law, officials are required to vet the names of newborns for names that might invite ridicule (“Hitler”, “Shithead”).

Brands, places, objects and last names as first names will trigger further ‘investigation’. Biblical names with negative associations like Judas and Cain are a no-no. In the old days, non-gender-specific names were also rejected. This means that, in your case, you might have been required to add a second name with gender-identifying qualities – like “Lake Mary”.

However, the Constitutional Court threw out the gender identification rule in 2007 with a case in which two Indian parents had the name Kiran turned down for their baby boy. Even though the name is given to both boys and girls in India, the high court could find no sensible reason to forbid it.

This opened the way for a more liberal approach – though the rule about protecting children from harm or ridicule still stands. Being a parent doesn’t make you a good person and there’s no reason you should have the unfettered right to name your child “Boy” or “Führer”.

In short, “Lake” is going to make the authorities sweat a bit, but in the end I think they’ll let it slide.

Originally published in issue #116, May 2013