Naming Rights

Back when I was living and practicing law in Knoxville, Tennessee, I noticed that several of my brother and sister members of the bar approached the idea of going to court, or going to work, or taking cases, in nearby Cocke* County with apparent trepidation.

Fairly early on in my legal career in Tennessee, I took a trusted colleague aside and asked him, “Dude, what’s up with Cocke County?” By way of reply, he asked me, “What’s the most backward-ass part of California, the part of the state that people from there keep on doing things that y’all’ve† got to tell everyone else, ‘Yeah, I know, but most of us aren’t like that’?‡ That place is Cocke County, and when you take a trip back to California, you’re gonna be apologizing for Cocke County, too, because now you own it just as much as we do, brother!”

And it turns out that indeed, whatever charms and attractions it may have, Cocke County always seems to be where the moonshining is going on with a wink if not a bribe to local law enforcement, where the cockfighting rings get broken up, where there are reports of Klan rallies (never saw one, myself), where local officials do and say things that make the rest of Tennessee facepalm.

Well, Cocke County has done it again.

See, in January of this year, a baby boy was born. Sometime between conception and birth, mom and dad had split up. Reading between the lines, the split-up was acrimonious, as these things sometimes are. So there was disagreement between mom and dad about what last name to give the baby boy. This resulted in the dispute going to court, and since mom and baby boy live in Cocke County, it went to Cocke County Chancery Court, where it was heard by a magistrate.

Who in one sense did kind of a clever thing: the baby now legally bears both mom’s last name and dad’s last name, incorporating the mother’s last name of “Martin” as the baby’s first name. But in so doing, she changed the baby’s first name, and she was quite clear about why she did that.

The baby’s birth certificate reads “Messiah DeShawn Martin.” This was the name given to the boy by his mother. As far as I can tell from the news report, the father didn’t have any objection to his son being named “Messiah.” He just wanted the child to have his last name, which he does until at least September 17, when the decision will be appealed to another judge.

The magistrate was explicit about her reasoning:

I saw out into the future… . The word ‘Messiah’ is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ. … It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.

The Social Security Administration reports that “Messiah” has been growing in popularity steadily since the SSA made baby names searchable in 2005 — in 2005 it was the 905th most popular baby boy name; in 2011, the 633rd, and in 2012, the 387th. So it’s not like this woman has come from left field in naming her son this.

She reports that to her, the word “Messiah” means “God,” and her other two sons also have names that begin with “M” and have Christian references — one son in named “Michael,” which I understand is the name of the archangel who will be tasked with serving as the general of the forces of Heaven during the battle of Armageddon, and another is named “Micah,” which I understand is the name of one of the Hebrew prophets.

And of course, people name their children “Jesus” — pronounced as either “Gee-zuz” or “Hey-Zeus” depending on your preference — all the time. And the conventional wisdom is that globally, the first name “Mohammed” (or spelling variations thereof) is the most popular name for boy babies in the world.º

But, when asked about people who name their children Jesus, either with the Spanish or Anglic pronunciations, the magistrate in Cocke County said, “Well, I thought about that as well, and that’s not relevant to this case.” Cocke County is indeed overwhelmingly Christianª but I’m not so sure that would matter — the mother seems to be Christian herself, given her correlation of the phrases “Messiah” and “God,” and she sees nothing wrong with naming her son this.

If the father has no objection to that first name, that pretty much ought to seal it, shouldn’t it? We can all agree that the magistrate overstepped her bounds, right? Or is it that simple? There seemed to be a fairly strong social consensus that a couple in New Jersey who named their boy-baby “Adolph Hitler Campbell” was doing their son a grave misservice, although I concluded then and still think now that parents indeed have a right to name their kids anything they want, even “Adolph Hitler,” although parents choosing a name like that deserve scorn. That said, it’s not for the government to tell people how to raise their kids, at least up to a point, and that zone of deference includes what names to give them. Naming your kid is part of what it is to be a parent.

So if the parents want to name their boy-baby “Messiah,” that’s the kid’s name. Sort out the stuff they can’t agree on, Your Honor. It ought to be a no-brainer that the Magistrate’s decision be reversed and this particular boy-baby gets the name his mother chose for him. But then again, this is Cocke County, Tennessee, so that may not be a foregone conclusion.

 

(Post found via memeorandum. Feature photo of Cocke County Courthouse found via flickr.)

* The “e” is silent.

† “Y’all” is an important and necessary contribution to the English language from the American South: the Queen’s English on its own does not provide an easy way to distinguish the singular second person from the plural second person. However, because “y’all” is expressed as a contraction, contracting it with another word — you all have — defies epistolary grace.

‡ The answer varies based on my assessment of the political alignment of the person to whom I am talking. If my interlocutor is someone who I perceive to be liberal, my answer would be “Bakersfield,” and if the person were apparently conservative, “Berkeley.” And really, there’s rarely any shortage of material coming out of either venue.

º My atheist friend who teaches middle school gives all the kids in his classes nicknames. Any kid named “Jesus” is immediately nicknamed “Jeebus.” It doesn’t take long before the kids adopt his nicknames for each other, including and in some cases especially “Jeebus.” While some parents have complained about their kids being called “Jeebus,” he claims that  never has a single student manifested any serious offense. And even if they did, his attitude is “Umm… I’ve got tenure.”

ª In Tennessee, when conversant A says “Christian,” conversant B understands that word to mean “Baptist” unless there is an indication by conversant A that a specific other denomination was intended.

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95 thoughts on “Naming Rights

  1. I think the “Adolph Hitler” case is more complicated because the government is also trying
    to place the children in foster care/adoption, right? The name is being used as evidence to show that the parents are not competent. That does not seem to be the case here.

    I generally agree with you but for a comparative law basis, other countries are more strict on baby naming. I heard Japan and Sweden have approved lists of baby names. When I was in Japan in 2002-2003, there was allegedly a case of a woman wanting to name her child Akuma (demon) and the government saying no.

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  2. Certainly the parents can name their kid whatever they want even if they are doing him a disservice. I hear plenty of odd kid names. Many people when telling me their child’s names proudly announce they want to do somethign unique. I rarely respond to that, but the only response is “yeah…everybody is doing that now.” ( so it isn’t really unique at all, its following what everybody else is doing). I work in custody cases btw and the only time i ever mention kids names is when the parents are calling the child different names. I’m not referring to nicknames. If the parents can’t agree on the chlids name and are insistent on confusing the hell of the poor kid then something needs to happen.

    When i was a child therapist i had a kid who likely had childhood schizophrenia. Both his parents were train-wrecks so the grandma was raising the kid. The mom had named the child after the most hated character (human character not satan) in the bible just to piss off dads family who were very religious. Nobody called the kid his given name but he knew what his name was and why he was given it.

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  3. Messiah, Christ, same meaning. Hebrew mashiyach, the anointed one. Jesus isn’t the only mashiyach in the Bible. All the kings of Israel were anointed and described as “God’s Anointed” as not only a title but a proof. The Queen of England was anointed as part of her coronation. But there was another mashiyach who wasn’t a Jew in the Bible: King Cyrus the Great.

    Greek has the name Christos, English Christopher, khristos-ferein, Christ-bearer. You could be anointed, too: chrism.

    Murkan Magistrates might think they know ’bout the Messiah. Stick to the law, Yer Onner. You don’t know jack about the Bible, for all your braying about it.

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  4. One of my issues with all the handwringing over baby names are the class, culture, and racial factors. The Freakonomics guys (who I tend to be iffy on) have done a lot of research on baby names. They found a certain “trickle down” effect, where wealthier people tend to be trend setters with name, seeking out names that no one else has. As these names become associated with rich and powerful people, they start to be utilized more and more by middle and lower classes, often with variations of spelling. As the wealthy people see their choice names adapted by “the masses”, they embark on new journeys for yet newer, more unique names. My anecdotal evidence, what I see working in independent schools often with large populations of very wealthy people, confirms much of this. Many of the wealthy parents have names for their children I’ve never heard of. Or they might be obscure references to cultural artifacts (It is possible the former are actually the latter, but the reference is loston me). And some of them seem straight made up. While these might be met with some eye rolls, they don’t seem to receive the derision that other naming conventions do. The vitriol aimed at certain African-American naming traditions seems far more intense, as does the criticism of spelling adjustments that seem more popular among the lower classes. Additionally, you have people who openly mock different cultural names, names which might be the “Jonathan” or “Christopher” of their culture but are largely unfamiliar to us.

    I say all this because it seems like a lot of stated objections to certain baby names are rooted in ignorance or animosity towards peoples of other races, classes, and cultures. Not all of it, but certainly some of it. Which always makes me very uneasy about indulging in it.

    Do I think some parents pick names that are deliberately transgressive? Or which seek to offend and turn the whole idea of naming your baby whatever you want on its head? Sure. Without knowing more, I have to think the “Adolph Hitler”* name is just such a case. The puts us into or close to the “children as social experiments” area, which I find objectionable and possibly actionable. But the vast majority of cases, to me, seem to be otherwise. A family doing something unconventional for a host of legitimate or semi-legitimate reasons who do not deserve out ire. Names by their definition carry a certain amount of symbolism, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise when people might seek to symbolize something other than what the “norm” is.

    * I’ve gone on record as stating that I actually think “Adolph” is beautiful name, but it’s association with one of history’s greatest monsters would mean it’d never be one we consider. I wouldn’t take issue with parents that felt similarly and arrived a different conclusion. But “Adolph Hitler” seems like something else entirely.

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  5. I’ve never personally knew anyone whose name was Jesus as in “Gee-zus.” (Well, once I did. But then I became an agnostic and the relationship became theoretical and no longer personal.) I didn’t realize that people did that on any regular basis. The baptists I knew growing up would have regarded such a name (at least with the Anglic pronunciation) as blasphemous.

    I do wonder wonder about your atheist-friend teacher who claims that the students didn’t have any problems with the nicknames he assigned. Students don’t always feel they have standing to protest what their teachers do in the classroom. (And again, I’m skeptical that there’s such a large number of non-latinos named “Jesus” running around, although Cocke County sound like it might be different. I guess I don’t get around enough.)

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      • Lyle,

        I suspect you’re right. I was just surprised to read Burt referring to what appears to be a non-trivial number of people named Jesus who don’t pronounce it “Hey-zeus” (and whom, for some reason, a middle school teacher feels the need to nickname with what some see as a condescending epithet. But then, my (hyper?)sensitivities on the subject are well-known around these parts.)

        (One thing I’d also like to know is if in Spanish language Bibles, Jesus is ever referred to as “Jesus.” I’m aware of some prayers, etc., that reference “Jesucristo,” but not “Jesus.” I’m pretty ignorant on this, so if anyone knows, I’d appreciate the enlightenment.)

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      • I think I’ve run across 3 people named “Jesus” pronounced the Anglic way. All Latino, IIRC. Legions of “Jesus”es pronounced the Spanish way.

        And more superficially, in the Elton John song, Levon’s son was named Jesus, pronounced the Anglic way.

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      • Jesus is referred to as Jesús throughout Spanish Bibles:

        Y Jacob engendró á José, marido de María, de la cual nació Jesús, el cual es llamado el Cristo.

        y Jacob fue padre de José, que fue el esposo de María, de la cual nació Jesús, llamado el Cristo.

        Jacob engendró a José, el marido de María, de la cual nació Jesús, llamado el Cristo.

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      • Those are 3 different translations of Matthew 1:16, or Mateo 1:16. From the Reina-Valera Antigua (roughly equivalent to the King James Bible, but a few decades older), the Nueva Versión Internacional (the Spanish language NIV), and the Biblia de las Américas (an evangelical Bible from the 1980s), respectively.

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  6. There was a similar case in New Zealand in 2008. A couple gave their daughter a really long and embarrassing name involving the words hula and Hawaii. At age 9, the girl sued. The judge held that her name was a form of child abuse. His holding was really fun to read.

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      • I have a difficult to read last name. It is actually relatively easy to say if you hear it said and repeat it, but because of how it is spelled, it is often mispronounced, even after being heard correctly. People want to try to rectify what they say with what they see on paper instead of what they hear me tell them the name is. Interestingly enough, this makes it easier for my students (most of whom are not reading or are, at best, very early readers) to pronounce it properly than my colleagues. Often times, the children will correct teachers who repeatedly say it wrong. These teachers’ ignorance/unwillingness to learn is not limited to my own name: there are many students whose names are routinely pronounced incorrectly, with some even going so far as to imply to the child that he is the one who is wrong. About his own name. This is, of course, almost exclusively limited to foreign-born families or families with names from cultural traditions that aren’t of the dominant majority. My attempts to draw people’s attention to this… under the guise that our mission statement says “every child is known” and, thus, we should at least know how to say their names… falls flat.

        It is really remarkable how willing to be ignorant people are in service of their sense of superiority. Or is it a willingness to tout their superiority in service of their ignorance? Both, probably.

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      • Case in point, one student at a previous school, his name was “Dahsir”, pronounced Dah (rhymes with Bah in “Bah Bah Black Sheep) – sear (like what you’d do to a steak). The librarian spent 1 minute (which is interminably long when such ignorance is on display) telling him it ought to be Da-shear, before I finally had to step in. She couldn’t wrap her mind around the h preceding the s. Ugh.

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      • Learned a lesson a long while back, roll call in Army formation. Lots of odd names, people enlist out of the Pacific, especially from American Samoa, where it seems most of the men enlist. Faamausili, FA-a-mau-SEE-LEE. Not Fama-silly. If you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, take him aside and get him to say his name. I repeat the name, he corrects me. I say it again, until I get it right. Furthermore, people have their own pronunciations for their own names. Weiner, is that WEE-ner or WAY-ner. Knew a couple who legally changed their name from Weiner to Wayner just because nobody pronounced it the way they wanted.

        Nothing is more annoying that your own name mispronounced.

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      • BlaisP, this reminds me of mail call in basic training. My instructor was epically bad at pronouncing names; so bad, in fact, that I suspect he did it on purpose. And when an Airman would try to correct him, he’d just growl back at them, “It’s whatever I say it is!”

        Good times.

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    • An ex of mine used to work at a city center hospital on the east coast (well known). The hospital also had a large number of foeign patients. Her department made a list of funny names. The list included names of poorly english tranlated names and crazy ass named children from americans. I’ll always rememember a few: “Onaphoni Phonacasoni” (that’s my phonetic spelling-this guy was foreign) and “Tugboat Steamboat”.

      I still chuckle.

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    • Asian immgirants tend to go for unsual English language names for their children or give their kids the demunitive form rather than the full form of their name. I read recently that African-Americans and Asian-Americans tend towards more creative names than White and Hispanic Americans.

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  7. There does have to be a limit where a name is form of child abuse that should prompt action or at least a warning to change the name from a judge or social services.

    Naming your kid “Crapforbrains Forgottoabort” should not be allowed.

    But yeah, the limit should be way out there.

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  8. My wife is a public defender. Criminal courtrooms are a great place for exposure to unusual names.

    To wit: the court calls for “la a” to appear, using various possible ways of pronouncing those letters. After some time, a woman stood up and said: “My name is Ladasha. The dash don’t be silent.”

    You see, the name on the warrant was “La-A”.

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  9. Of course the choice of name says something about the parent(s) and nothing about the newborn. Unfortunately, names like Messiah and God Shamgod (basketball player from NYC) can be resume killers because they feed into people’s biases. My bias: these sort of names suggest that child was born to an oddball, raised by an oddball, and might him/herself have been groomed into oddballhood. Now for employers that are looking to hire unconventional employees this might be a plus. Otherwise… I’m just sayin.

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  10. I wonder what the magistrate would have done to Prince. Or Judge Reinhold – “Sorry, but you don’t have a law license and you haven’t passed the bar. You’re back to being Edward.” Does anybody in that county get away with having the surname, “Pope”?

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    • Judge is legally Edward Ernest Reinhold, Jr. (Which surprises me; I was sure he would be a “George”.) As for Prince, the real question is why he’s called “Fielder” when he was born to DH.

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  11. I started reading this and immediately thought, Kern County, CA. And yes, I live in Kern County.

    If you have any questions just run a search for “Ed Jagels.” Kern County had the whole satanic cult thing down long before the McMartin school case.

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  12. About 30 years ago, a fellow I knew — a substitute elementary school teacher — mentioned a student in one of his classes named End The War In Viet Nam Schwartz. God only knows what that kid did about his name …

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    • “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

      “I better go. Mom gets mad if I don’t come after she calls me three times.”

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