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DEBATE: ‘Girl With No Name’ Sues Iceland’s Government for Right to Be Called by Her Birth Name

Imagine going through your whole life with the official name of “Girl.” Well, that’s been the reality for a 15-year-old in Iceland, who is now suing the country’s government for the right to legally use the name that was given to her by her mother. The girl’s mother did not realize that the name Blaer, which means “light breeze” in Icelandic, was not on the government’s approved list of names. The list is intended to protect children from being given names deemed embarrassing by the government.

So for example when Blaer (pictured above, on left) goes to the bank she is forced to write her name as Stulka, which means “girl” in Icelandic, and explain the situation.

The following is from the Associated Press: Like a handful of other countries, including Germany and Denmark, Iceland has official rules about what a baby can be named. In a country comfortable with a firm state role, most people don’t question the Personal Names Register, a list of 1,712 male names and 1,853 female names that fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules and that officials maintain will protect children from embarrassment. Parents can take from the list or apply to a special committee that has the power to say yea or nay. In Blaer’s case, her mother said she learned the name wasn’t on the register only after the priest who baptized the child later informed her he had mistakenly allowed it. “I had no idea that the name wasn’t on the list, the famous list of names that you can choose from,” said Bjork Eidsdottir, adding she knew a Blaer whose name was accepted in 1973. This time, the panel turned it down on the grounds that the word Blaer takes a masculine article, despite the fact that it was used for a female character in a novel by Iceland’s revered Nobel Prize-winning author Halldor Laxness.

Given names are even more significant in tiny Iceland that in many other countries: Everyone is listed in the phone book by their first names. Surnames are based on a parent’s given name. Even the president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, is addressed simply as Olafur.

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Blaer is identified as “Stulka” — or “girl” — on all her official documents, which has led to years of frustration as she has had to explain the whole story at the bank, renewing her passport and dealing with the country’s bureaucracy. Her mother is hoping that will change with her suit, the first time someone has challenged a names committee decision in court. Though the law has become more relaxed in recent years — with the name Elvis permitted, inspired by the charismatic rock and roll icon whose name fits Icelandic guidelines — choices like Cara, Carolina, Cesil, and Christa have been rejected outright because the letter “c” is not part of Iceland’s 32-letter alphabet. “The law is pretty straightforward so in many cases it’s clearly going to be a yes or a no,” said Agusta Thorbergsdottir, the head of the committee, a panel of three people appointed by the government to a four-year term.

On America’s Newsroom this morning, Heather Childers discussed the unusual case with criminal defense attorney Jennifer Brandt and former prosecutor Randy Zelin. Zelin argued that this law, forcing people to pick from a list of names, goes back centuries and is part of the country’s Nordic tradition. He explained that the law is designed for everyone, “which means no one individual can say, ‘Listen, I want an exception, I want a mulligan.” Brandt disagreed, pointing out that there is nothing offensive or embarrassing about the name Blaer and it works within the country’s alphabet. “Archaic laws shouldn’t stay on the books forever. … This girl shouldn’t be called ‘girl,’ she should have her proper name,” said Brandt. Watch the full discussion: