Family Names

Update (April 21, 2017)


Not everyone is happy about this decision, understandably. I still think their choice of name is imprudent.

However, I also think that a government’s legitimate interests do not include a need to tell parents what name their children may have. Particularly if the government’s preference is based on the dictates of a long-dead monarch in another country.

Georgia parents win legal battle to name baby girl Allah
BBC News (April 21, 2017)

A couple in the US state of Georgia have won their legal battle to give their baby daughter the surname Allah.

“The state had refused to issue a birth certificate for ZalyKha Graceful Lorraina Allah on the grounds that neither parent has that last name….”


Officials in an American state think forcing a young couple to give their baby a name the officials prefer is a good idea. I don’t agree. At all.

I wouldn’t have picked the name the couple want. But my preferences don’t matter much in this case.

What is important, I think, is the idea that government control must end somewhere. And it’s certainly not needed to enforce an English king’s wishes.

And that gets me started on a less-than-usually-linear post. For me, that’s saying something.

The men — that’s another topic, for another day — who signed the United States Constitution ‘looked American’ and had ‘American’ names by some standards.

To this day, I suspect some Americans feel that being an American citizen requires having a name like George Washington, James Madison, or William Livingston.

I don’t, but as one of my ancestors said of another, “he doesn’t have family, he’s Irish.”

Some Americans have been non-English since before the 1776 rebellion, but ‘foreigners’ started pouring in during the 19th century. (January 22, 2017)

Since then, Americans with ‘foreign’ names like O’Toole and Di Vincenzo have been joined by folks like Ieoh Ming Pei and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

I do not see that as a problem.

I also don’t have a problem with governments making rules about folks moving in, within reason. But the world’s more prosperous nations must let folks who can’t make ends meet back home come over. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2241)

The last I checked, America wasn’t in boom times like the years following WWII. But we’re still among the world’s wealthiest nations. I certainly don’t mind living in one of the places folks are trying to break into.

I also think treating folks who already are here with a degree of justice makes sense, no matter who our ancestors are. (Catechism, 2433)

I’ll grant that having “low types” in the family tree helps me embrace that idea. (September 20, 2016; August 26, 2016)

Much as I like living in America, I realize that my country isn’t perfect. That brings me to a couple who were told the name they picked for their baby wasn’t legal.

That got my attention. So did the name at issue: Allah. In a way, it’s none of my business. It’s not my child, not my state, and my kids already have “legal” names.

However, being involved in public life, supporting what’s good in my society, and addressing what’s not-so-good, is part of being a citizen. (Catechism, 1915, 2239)

‘My Name is Allah?’

My first thought was that the baby would be in for a great deal of teasing, at best, if the parents get their way.

What surprised me, after I read past the headline, was that it is the surname that’s at issue.

US parents sue to call baby girl Allah
(March 27, 2017)

A couple in the US state of Georgia who were banned from naming their daughter Allah are taking legal action.

“The state Department of Public Health has refused to issue the 22-month-old with a birth certificate.

“Elizabeth Handy and Bilal Walk say it is unacceptable that their child, ZalyKha Graceful Lorraina Allah, has officially been left nameless.

“But state officials say the child’s surname should either be Handy, Walk or a combination of the two, not Allah….”

The couple isn’t married. BBC News didn’t say whether that’s by choice, or whether they couldn’t get a marriage certificate, either.

Either way, they have different last names: hence the state’s insisting that they choose Handy, Walk, or some combination. I’ll get back to the matter of marriage and family.

I still think “Allah” is an imprudent choice. But I can’t fault one of their reasons. Bilal Walk, the baby’s father, told a newspaper that the name was chosen because it’s “noble.”

I can’t argue with that. Not reasonably. Not if I’m going to take my own beliefs seriously.

The couple are probably Muslims, but that’s a guess on my part. If so, they follow one of the Abrahamic religions. I’ve talked about that before. (November 29, 2016)

Seeking truth is expected of everyone, which is why I support religious freedom — for everyone, not just folks who agree with me. (Catechism, 21042107)

It’s not an absolute right, but I’m expected to recognize that other religious “…frequently ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men,’…” (Catechism, 2104, 21082109)

Choosing “Allah” as a surname? As I said, I think it’s imprudent, but I won’t argue against the father’s stated reason.

And the state officials apparently didn’t have the child’s welfare in mind, which I think might be a legitimate reason. Their problem seems to be that they think everybody should have surnames that follow rules they’re used to.

What they think our Lord’s surname should be, I don’t know. As far as I know, Mary and Joseph didn’t have surnames; not the “American” sort.

I’ve seen our Lord referred to as “Jesus;” “Jesus the Nazarene;” “Jesus, son of Mary;” and “Jesus, son of Joseph;” but not “Jesus Josephson.” I think Anglo-American naming conventions work, and know that they’re just one of many possibilities.

Names, Legal and Regrettable

I think names are important, and more than labels that are more personalized than ‘hey, you.’

Some countries are run by folks who think names are so important that they tell parents which names are legal, and which aren’t. A few say the name must be written in a particular script.

I gather that the idea in some cases is to protect kids from “being given an offensive or embarrassing name,” as a Wikipedia page put it. Fair enough.

So, I think, are laws which limit names to those which can be expressed in a machine-readable language. That’s not an issue in English. Our alphabet of just over two dozen characters easily converts to ASCII and machine-friendly codes.

China’s language, with more than 70,000 characters, is another matter. Some do have code equivalents, most don’t.

Demanding that names be selected from a pre-approved list, like Denmark’s and Hungary’s, seems unreasonable; particularly if the motive is clinging to a national culture.

I can sympathize with someone who doesn’t like seeing the old customs fade.

But if folks must be forced to follow “their” culture’s preferences, and new customs are harmless, I think the reasonable approach is admitting that the past is in the past, and will stay there.

Then there’s there’s an old joke about the man who told a judge he wanted his name changed. The judge asked why. You know the rest, but I’ll tell it anyway.

‘My name is Sam Stinks.’ ‘The court understands why you want a different name. What name do you prefer?’ ‘Fred.’

A situation Chris Haslam ran across in Zambia isn’t so funny:

“…His name is Mulangani. It’s a Nguni word meaning ‘punish me’. Or ‘he who must be punished’, if you want to get formal. Who, I asked my driver Mavuto, would give their child such a horrible name?

“‘Maybe his grandfather, maybe the chief,’ he shrugged, explaining that across Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, it is common for parents, especially in rural areas, to invite community elders to choose the name of a newborn.

“‘Sometimes the chief wants to punish the family,’ says Mavuto. ‘Or he may think this new child is too much for the family to bear.’…

“…’In African culture, there is a trend of naming children according to the circumstances surrounding their birth,’ says Clare Mulkenga-Chilambo, a care worker at SOS Children’s Villages in Zambia. ‘It’s good for those born at bright and merry moments but unfortunate for the others.’…”
(Magazine, BBC News (March 26, 2017))

Other regrettable names Chris Haslam mentioned were Chilumba – “my brother’s grave”, Balaudye – “I will be eaten”, Soca – “bad luck” and Chakufwa – “it is dead”. On a happier note, some kids had names like Daliso, “blessings” and Chikondi, “love”.

My culture has similar naming conventions. I don’t know how often Faith, Hope, or Charity are given to baby girls, or “Victor” to boys; but it’s been done.

My guess is that all names meant something, when they were new. Many in my culture’s heritage are now so old that most folks have since forgotten their meaning — along with the original language.

I’ve talked about continuity, change, and culture, before. (July 24, 2016)

Folks can and do change their names as adults, because their marital status changed, they want a name that’s easier to spell or pronounce, or for other reason. In the United States, that’s covered by state laws.

A Saint Brian: Sort of

Upwards of 12,000,000 folks entered the United States through a processing station at Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, between 1892 and 1954.

Some newcomers kept their names, others decided that a new name would be more suitable in a new country.

Some had their names changed by immigration officials who couldn’t spell, pronounce, or understand, the ‘foreign’ sounds.

I like to think that we’ve learned a bit since the days of Ellis Island specials. I think we have much left to learn.

My father’s family name, Gill, came over from the British Isles quite a long time ago. My mother’s family are more recent arrivals. My — grandmother, I think — was an infant when that part of the family left Norway.

They went to the ‘wrong’ church, so she couldn’t get a birth certificate. That complicated matters, but the family sorted it out and headed for central North America.

We remembered, however, how precious religious freedom is; and why state-sponsored churches aren’t nearly as nifty as they may sound.

My mother’s father and his family kept their surname, Hovde. So did my mother, after marriage, and to the end she was “Dorothy Hovde Gill,” not “Dorothy Marie Gill.”

The “H.” in my name is “Hovde.” The nod to my father’s heritage is my given name, Brian. It’s also my baptismal name, which may be a bit unusual for a Catholic.

We’re generally named after a Saint or a Christian mystery or virtue; and parents shouldn’t give a name that’s “foreign to Christian sentiment.” (Catechism, 21562159; Code of Canon Law 855)

That last makes sense, I think. Who’d want to be named something like “Gluttony Smith?”

It’s no surprise that my baptismal name doesn’t follow Catholic naming conventions. I was baptized in my mother’s church, one of the smaller Protestant denominations; which has since merged with another mainstream group.

There has been a “Saint Brian.” sort of, since 1970. That’s when Edmund Arrowsmith was canonized. He was baptized “Brian,” but used “Edmond,” was convicted of being a Catholic priest, and executed on August 28, 1628.

The charge was true, and another reason I think religious freedom is important.

Daruma and Me

Another branch of my mother’s kin decided that their family name, Pjaaka, wasn’t suitable for their new homeland. They changed it to something a great deal more anonymously “American.”

I understand their reasons, but feel the loss of that bit of our heritage. Being practical is a family value, however, so I think they most likely made a prudent choice.

I’m not sure what I would do, if I had to move my family to a country where “Brian Gill” would sound “foreign.”

My parents named me after Brian Boru, high king of Ireland back when folks from near my mother’s ancestral homeland were muscling in on Charles the Simple’s territory.

Charles graciously gave them permission to stay on the land they’d picked, on condition that they defend it from other invaders. I think that was a sensible move. With a bunch of Vikings in residence, who’d be crazy enough to even try invading?

Normans moved in on England next, the place hasn’t been the same since, and that’s yet another topic.

The Irish/Breton given name Brian most likely comes from an Old Celtic word meaning “noble” or “high.” That’s plausible, since the element bre means “hill.”

Interestingly, “Hovde” probably means about the same thing. Depending on who you listen to, the name meant a descendant of a headman or chief, or maybe “hill.” The latter seems more likely.

Origins of my father’s surname are lost. One of the more reasonable of our speculations is that it’s from gill, or ghyll, a ravine or narrow valley.

The word gully is supposed to come from French goule, meaning throat; but I suspect it caught on because English-speaking folks already knew about gills.

Let’s say that my family and I had to move to Japan.

My guess is that folks there would eventually get used to my “Brian Gill” moniker, but pronouncing it the way I do might be a challenge. If nothing else, there’s a tripthong in “Brian.” Not all languages use the marvelous variety of vowels mine does.

I might consider taking a new name. The first one I thought of was Daruma, the Japanese version of Bodhidharma, Bìyǎnhú, “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian.”

Chinese traditions say he brought Chan Buddhism to China, and began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to Shaolin Kung Fu. He’s shown as an ill-tempered, profusely-bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese person in Buddhist art.

That sounds a lot like me, and his picture there even looks a little like me — a decade or so back, and from a far-eastern viewpoint. My beard is longer and grayer now.

Daruma lived around the time Britons fought West Saxons at the Battle of Badon.

Arthur may have been involved in that battle: the real Arthur, not the post-Renaissance retreads we’re familiar with. Those are generally based, more or less, on Geoffry of Monmouth’s imaginative retelling of Welsh tales, and that’s yet again another topic.

I have great respect for Daruma, Chan Buddhism, and Zen. But I’m a Christian and Catholic, enjoy reading passages from Thomas Aquinas, and have a very different view of reality. I looked at other possible names for hypothetical adopton.

“Gill,” in the sense of a ghyll or gully, is easy enough. I understand that it comes out as Gari in Japanese. Tani or Keikoku might be better choices: “Valley” or “Ravine,” more or less. I’d have to do more research to be anywhere near confident about that.

If I assume that “Brian” means “hill,” that’d be Oka, which seems to be an element in names like Hirokatsu and Hirokazu. Hideyoshi’s meaning might be closer to my parent’s intent, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Where was I? America’s Constitution, names, Arthurian legends, Kung Fu. Right. I was talking about a young couple, their baby girl, and a state’s efforts to dictate what the kid’s name should be.

‘Because Henry VIII Said So?!’

Thinking that marriage and family are important mean that I’m a Catholic who understands our faith: not someone who things everyone should live as if it’s still 1950s suburban America. (Catechism, 16011658)

The fictional Cleavers and Andersons weren’t bad role models, but things are different now.

I think it’d be nice if that young couple got married. But they’ve apparently been together long enough for their second kid to be 22 months old.

By contemporary American standards, that’s pretty good family stability.

If I thought having a surname that’s the same as one of the parents was a law etched into the foundations of the universe — well, I know that’s not so. Many but not all cultures have family names that remain stable over many generations. Some don’t, and get along fine.

Most folks in Japan, for example, got along without family names until — I think it was the Meiji Restoration.

Surnames have become virtually universal in Europe over the last few centuries. Many developed from and replaced bynames or epithets, like “the simple,” “the smith,” or “the bald.” That may explain why there are so many Smiths these days. it was a worthy profession.

I understand that we have Henry VIII to thank for English-speaking cultures traditionally insisting that children be given the father’s family name.

It’s not a bad idea, that’s what my wife and I did; but ‘because Henry VIII said so’ doesn’t strike me as sufficient reason to keep the custom.

Families are the basic unit of society. Larger units, including governments, have a legitimate interest in helping families do our work. But the big outfits also have an obligation to keep their meddling fingers out of family life unless it’s actually necessary. The Church expresses that idea more politely. (Catechism, 1883, 22072213)

Ephesians 6:13 says that honoring our fathers and mothers is a good idea. Giving kids the same surname as their father is a nice way to do that, but it’s not the only way.

I am convinced that following surname conventions no more than a few centuries old is not vital to family stability.

I still think “Allah” isn’t the most prudent choice for a surname in today’s America. But if I expect others to respect my family and my faith, I can’t reasonably think that efforts to shove official preferences down the throats of unwilling subjects is a good idea.

That includes religious freedom. I became a Catholic because I am convinced that it is a good idea, and that it would be a good idea for everyone. But, like I said earlier: religious freedom is vital. “Free to agree with me” is not “free.”

There’s more to say about that, and I probably will: but not today. (Catechism, 839845; Nostra aetate,” Bl. Paul VI (October 28, 1965))

I will, however, repeat a quote I used last year. (November 29, 2016)

“…the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind….”
(“Lumen Gentium,” Bl. Paul VI (November 21, 1964))

More of my take on living as if other folks matter:

About Brian H. Gill

I’m a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I’m only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.

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2 Responses to Family Names

  1. Alicia @ Sweeping Up Joy says:

    Hello! I found you from the #WorththeRevisit link up. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on naming. There are multiple babies expected in our extended family this year, and we love seeing what name is chosen. (Probably won’t be any “Gluttony Smiths” in the group!) I appreciate your thoughts on our naming conventions. 🙂

    • Greetings! You are quite welcome: and congratulations on the newcomers to your extended family.

      I took a quick look at Sweeping Up Joy, and enjoyed the glimpses of “beauty and humor in life.” It is good to see another person highlighting an aspect of the beauty and wonders that surround us. I took the liberty of adding it to the Blogroll.

      Thank you for taking time to comment: and write posts like “Hope for Crushed Cans.”

Thanks for taking time to comment!