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The Straight Dope 

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Regarding your recent column on the belief that infants must have a name before leaving the hospital [August 28], I was once acquainted with a burly six-footer whose legal name was Baby Boy Smith. That was the name on his birth certificate, and his family had never given him a name. His friends called him B.B. --Richard Levine, via the Internet

My youngest sister was born in a hospital, but my mother was determined to spend as little time as possible there. On leaving the hospital the front desk insisted she had to name the baby and fill out a certificate. My mother insisted she had to do no such thing and she'd register the child at the courthouse in a month when she had decided on a name. Our neighbors were shocked and said, "You can't just call her 'the baby' for a month," to which I snapped, "That's better than calling her Tabitha for 90 years." My mother settled on a name and phoned the courthouse and talked to a clerk who told us it was registered. Four years later she decided to get a copy of my sister's birth certificate and found the clerk had never filled in the names and the last name alone was listed. I'm not certain why it couldn't be changed until my sister became 18, but when she tried to register for a driver's license, a DMV clerk, conflicted between her adamance that a person must be named what is on her birth certificate and her insistence that a person must have a first name, concluded that my sister wasn't entitled to a driver's license. She has legally changed her name, but even then the clerk insisted, "But what are you changing it from?"

--Nathaniel Meyers, Berkeley, California

You stated: "As a matter of common law you have the right to use any name you want without legal proceedings of any kind, provided you're not trying to defraud someone." You will be fascinated to know that here in La Belle Province (Quebec) we have a section of the civil code dealing with this exact topic. Unlike the rest of Canada, which uses the English common-law system, Quebec uses a Napoleonic Code-inspired civil code. Under the section "Assignment of Names," section 54, it says: "Where the name chosen by the father and mother contains an odd compound surname or odd given names which invite ridicule or which may discredit the child, the registrar of civil status may suggest to the parents that they change the child's name. If they refuse to do so, the registrar has authority to bring the dispute with the parents before the court and demand the assignment to the child of the surname of one of his parents or of two given names in common use, as the case may be."

--Matthew Wesley (and for that they should have applied section 54) McLauchlin, Westmount, Quebec

Picabo Street (the Olympic skier) was called "Baby Street" until she was four or five. Her parents were hippies and wanted her to pick her own name.

--Tim Argo, via the Internet

The Quebec civil code is as described. I was of course speaking of English common law, not the Napoleonic Code. Reader McLauchlin was kind enough to forward a February 2, 1998, story from the Ottawa Citizen about Guy Lavigne, Quebec's registrar of civil status. The seven buttinskies--sorry, staffers--in M. Lavigne's office reject about 20 of the 85,000 names of newborns submitted annually, including Goldorak, Lion, Cowboy, Gazouille, and Boum-Boum. Some applicants appeal to the courts, for example the parents of Tomas Gagnon, who won the right to put an accent over the a in Tomas, which Lavigne's office had rejected on the grounds that the computers couldn't handle accents. However, the courts upheld rejection of the name Spatule, meaning either spoonbill (a type of bird) or cooking spatula.

Picabo Street was Baby Girl Street until age three, when officials questioned her hippie parents about the blank on her birth certificate during a vacation to Mexico. The name has been explained in press accounts as (1) her favorite kid's game or (2) the name of a town, tribe, or trout stream in Idaho meaning "silver waters." My feeling is, Quebec can keep its frigging registrar's office. I'll take Picabo and Moon Unit any day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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