Among the many idiosyncratic things that people know about Iceland is that the country has an official naming committee, or Mannanafnanefnd, which dictates what names people can and cannot give their children. In case you didn’tknow this, however, let me fill you in on the basics.
The basic rules for Icelandic names are as follows:
The name must decline according to the rules of Icelandic grammar.
The name must be spelled according to Icelandic conventions.
The name must “not cause the bearer embarrassment.”
Girls must be given names that are considered female; boys must be given names that are considered male.
No one can have more than three names.
The naming committee also maintains a list of approved names. And if you want to name your child Jón Þór or Anna María (the most popular first-middle name combos for males and females in 2014), this really poses no problem.
If you want to name your child something a little more unusual, however—a very old family name, a foreign name, or even a name that you just made up yourself—then you have to apply to the committee for permission. If you’re in luck and the petition is approved, well then, your name is added to the register and generations of Icelanders should be able to use it ever after. But if rejected, you either have to pick a new, approved name or make due with your child being referred to as “Stúlka” or “Drengur” (Girl or Boy) on all of their official documents for the foreseeable future. (For more on this purgatorial namelessness, see the finally resolved case of Blær Bjarkardóttir Rúnarsdóttir or the as-yet-unsettled case of siblings Harriet and Duncan Cardew.)
As you might expect, the naming law has irked many Icelanders over the years, not least Reykjavík’s former mayor who once called it an “unfair, stupid law against creativity” and recently went so far as to have his own name legally changed to Jón Gnarr (from Jón Gnarr Kristinsson) in Texas because the naming committee rejected his petition to “take up a new surname.” On the other hand, defenders of the naming law argue that it safeguards both Iceland's linguistic heritage, and also protects children from having embarrassing, unpronounceable, or unwieldy names. (This issue will not be leaving the public eye any time soon: a new bill has been introduced to parliament proposing that the naming committee be dismantled all together.)
I'm not going to stage a lengthy argument for or against the law here, because regardless of how I feel about the naming committee or the naming law itself, I can't help but be fascinated by process through which a name is rejected or approved. The naming committee publishes all of the petitions it reviews, along with the rationale for each decision, on their website. Some of these are rather lengthy, and many seem to contradict each other. And so with the most recent batch of decisions coming out last week, I thought I'd take an opportunity to look a little more closely at some names that have made the cut (or haven’t) and why.
Bad news first.
Huxland (requested 2014)
Huxland ran into trouble because the committee believed it wasn't consistent with Icelandic grammar. “In the first place,” reads the decision, “the name Huxland looks like a middle or family name.” In Iceland, the explanation continues, there are some family names that are also used as given names, such as Smári or Viðar. But these names have essentially been grandfathered in—there are enough examples of them being used in both ways throughout Icelandic history that they've created a precedent for themselves. But there is no tradition of geographical or topographical suffixes, such as fjörð (fjord), fell (hill; mountain), or, as in the case of Huxland, land (land; earth; country), being used in given names—just in last names or middle names.
Furthermore, the decision continues, based on the suffix -land, Huxland would bea neuter word, and having a neuter-gendered noun as a personal name is not in keeping with the Icelandic naming system.
Joakim (requested 2015)
At first look, Joakim appears to be more in line with Icelandic spelling conventions than its other common international spellings—Joachim or Joaquim—since the letters C and Q (as well as W and Z) were removed from the Icelandic alphabet in the 70s and 80s. Nevertheless, this name wasn’t seen to comply with spelling conventions. Per the decision, the vowel combination 'oa' is not found in Icelandic names—a more appropriate Icelandic spelling would be 'óa' (that's an accented 'ó'—a separate letter with a separate pronunciation in Icelandic). The committee suggested that the name could be approved if the adjusted spelling were implemented instead.
But the problems don't end here for Joachim. Because in addition to spelling discrepancies, the name is also rather clearly of foreign origin. A provision exists within the naming law to protect foreign names which were adjusted to match Icelandic spelling conventions and adopted in past centuries, going back to the first Icelandic census in 1703. A primary way for the naming committee to determine a foreign name appropriate for use in the modern day is to refer back to old census records and confirm that at least one of the following conditions is met:
The name is currently borne by at least 15 Icelanders
The name is currently borne by 10-14 Icelanders, the oldest of whom is at least 30 years old
The name is borne by 5-9 Icelanders, the oldest of whom is at least 60 years old.
The name is borne by 1-4 Icelanders and appeared in the 1910 or 1920 census.
The name isn't currently borne by any Icelanders, but appears in at least two censuses between 1703 and 1920.
Poor Joakim didn’t meet any of these qualifications, and so was rejected twice over.
Other recent rejects
Fletcher (2014) doesn’t decline in Icelandic and neither does Clinton (2014), which also didn’t comply with spelling conventions, as it starts with a ‘C.’
Eldflaug (2013) is the Icelandic word for ‘missile’ or ‘rocket.’ Although there is a precedent for common nouns to be used as names in Icelandic, the committee stated that it was uncommon for tools or other pieces of equipment to be used thusly. Moreover, while the name was actually being requested by an adult woman to use herself, if approved, it could have been chosen for children. It was thought that such a name could cause a child embarrassment.
Aðalvíkingur (requested 2015)
Directly translated, this name means ‘Chief/Head/Main Viking,’ although the applicants specifically explained that it is meant to be a combination of the male names Aðalsteinn and Víkingur. It was rejected in 2012 because of the committee’s sense that it didn’t conform to existing naming conventions of using the prefix ‘Aðal-’ in place names, such as Aðalvík (Main Bay), and also because it was essentially too unwieldy. This decision was, however, reconsidered on the grounds of some rather convoluted grammatical explanations, as well as the fact that there was an Icelandic man with the name in 1954.
Auður (requested 2013)
Auður is actually a very common female name in Iceland—1,086 women had the name as of 2014. In this case, however, the petitioners wanted to use it as a boy’s name. First, it had to be determined that the name could decline as a masculine name as well as a feminine one. This wasn’t a problem because the common noun, auður, which means ‘wealth’ or ‘riches,’ already exists as a masculine noun. So while a woman named Auður would decline her name one way (Auður, Auði, Auði, Auðar), a man’s name could be easily differentiated with its own, masculine declension (Auður, Auð, Auði, Auðs).
Next, it had to be determined that a) the name wouldn’t embarrass the bearer, and b) that it really qualified as a man’s name, as boys are not allowed to be given ‘girls’ names’ or vice versa. Here, Mister Auður was successful as well, since his name is already recognized as being masculine (in the noun form, if not as a name), and secondly, because men named Auður were found to be listed in the Book of Settlements and in the Saga of Hörður.
Other recent approvals:
Christel (2013): Although this name begins with a ‘Ch’, which doesn’t conform to spelling conventions, there were, luckily, seven people in the National Register with the name, the oldest of whom was born in 1928. As such, there is a precedent for its use, and that overrides the spelling issue.
Jagger (2014): I very much doubt that there is a historical precedent for the name Jagger in Iceland, but this wasn’t mentioned in the committee’s approval. The name can be declined, and on that basis, was approved.
Þyrnirós (2013): This means thorned rose, and is the Icelandic name for the fairy tale character known in English as Sleeping Beauty. It declines very easily in Icelandic, as the word rós (rose), as both a noun and a name, is very common.
Larissa Kyzer is a writer and student of the Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. She currently lives in Reykjavík with her partner Mark and blogs about life and language-learning at ethandthorn.wordpress.com.