And now the news from the Antipodes:
The New Zealand Herald reports on the just-strange-enough-to-be-newsworthy tale of Sheena and Pat Wheaton, who wanted to name their son "4real." The name admittedly has a sort of hip, trendy, digital-age vibe going for it, but on the whole it strikes me as one of the silliest things to call a baby this side of "Rimshot Thudpucker." The Registrar-General demurred, and so the Wheatons are contemplating the alternative of officially registering their son's name as "Superman," but calling him "4real" anyway.
At this point you may have everybody's favourite Philip Larkin quotation running through your head, but the Registrar-General had (at least ostensibly) a different objection:
The couple's original choice met with controversy after it was made public and late last week the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages rejected the name 4Real on the grounds that the dictionary definition of a name was "a sequence of characters".
There are, I think, a few things wrong with this line of reasoning. Here, in ascending order, are three that spring to mind:
- It's not really sensible to talk about "the dictionary definition of a name" without being more specific. There are lots of dictionaries out there, and all but the most compact and abridged among them are likely to include more than one sense for the word name listed.
- A name is not "a sequence of characters." (And, of course, not all sequences of characters are names.) Here's the OED's first definition of the noun name, which strikes me as a good deal more accurate: "The particular combination of sounds employed as the individual designation of a single person, animal, place, or thing." In other words, names are primarily sounds, not letters. (Consider, for example, that people had names before they had writing systems, and that names can be transliterated from one writing system to another.) It's useful, of course, for a person to have a single definitive spelling of their name in the writing system used by the country they live in (so, for instance, if your surname is 黃 and you move to New Zealand, you should probably tell the Registrar-General whether you want to be known as Huang, Wang, Wong, or something else, and stick with your choice), but that's not the issue here, because...
- "4real" is a sequence of characters, dammit! So even if we accept the Registrar-General's definition, it provides absolutely no basis for rejecting the name.
Then maybe the Registrar-General meant that a name consists specifically of letters, rather than characters more generally? But that would rule out some perfectly cromulent names with hyphens or apostrophes in them, such as Su'a or Dove-Myer. Or maybe they meant that names don't have numbers in them, but some names do have numbers, although they're usually Roman numerals (hence also letters), and at the end of the name, not at the beginning (nor in the middle, pace Tom Lehrer's friend Hen3ry). The BBC mentions this particular counter-argument, and says that the rules state more specifically that "first names starting with a number are not allowed." (Those quotation marks are me quoting Auntie Beeb, not the Beeb quoting the Registrar-General, so who knows what the R-G's exact words were?)
I strongly suspect that the Registrar-General has an ulterior objection, namely that naming one's son "4real" is not a very nice thing to do to him. I agree, but that's true of quite a lot of other names against which the R-G could raise no formal objection, and I really don't think that government bureaucracies should be in the business of adjudicating matters of taste. So it's a little sad to see the Wheatons retreating all the way to "Superman" when there are so many more subversive alternatives they could have tried out, such as:
- Fourreal Wheaton
- For-Real Wheaton
- Fo'Real Wheaton
- Real Wheaton IV
- Ivreal Wheaton
- Real Real Real Real Wheaton
- Wesley Crusher
- etc., etc.
Meanwhile, the best thing the Registrar-General can possibly do for this kid is to make sure that it will be as easy as possible for him, once he gets a little older, to change his name to whatever the hell he wants.