WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Spanish parents win right to name their son "Wolf"

The case has reopened a national debate about to what degree the government should be able to regulate baby names

Ignacio and María, the parents who fought to name their son "Lobo" through a Change.com campaign.
Ignacio and María, the parents who fought to name their son "Lobo" through a Change.com campaign.

Last week, a Madrid couple was finally given official permission to name their son Lobo, Spanish for “Wolf,” after a widely-covered battle with their local registry office. Ignacio and Maria Javierre welcomed the child on July 12 but were informed over the phone that they could not name him Lobo as they had planned.

The name was rejected initially for being an animal’s name, with potential to do harm to the child; it was also rejected for being more commonly found as a last name. The parents responded by arguing that wolves stand for strength, protection and intelligence, gathering over 20,000 signatures on Change.com from people supporting their choice. Even Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the leftist Podemos Party, weighed in, pointing out on Twitter that some very popular Spanish names come from animals as well: “I think Lobo is a lovely and dignified name. If you can call a child Paloma (Dove) or León (Lion), why not Lobo?”

Spain’s current laws regarding baby names can be found in Article 54 of the Civil Registry’s 20/2011 Law, which forbids any name that could offend a person’s dignity or lead to identity confusion (a rule frequently invoked to prohibit parents from giving names that do not clearly connote gender, or using a last name as a first name) or a name that a sibling already has. The Article also states that no parents in Spain may give a child more than two simple names or one compound name, which means King Felipe VI’s name (officially Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbón y Grecia) is not only a mouthful, but also technically illegal.

While these three are the only official nation-wide rules, each individual province's Civil Registry offices can outline its own guidelines. It often boils down to the criteria of the particular public officer who is registering the name, which could be why as of 2015 there's no one in Spain named Judas, Lucifer or Cain, but there are 30 men named Stalin, according to the National Statistics Institute. Javier Gómez Gálligo, the Managing Director of the Registry and Notary’s Office of Fuenlabrada, made the announcement that the initial rejection had been overruled, explaining that “social uses are converting [Lobo] into a name.”

The case has reopened a national debate about what right governments have to regulate the names parents wish to give their children. Spanish laws used to be even more restrictive, requiring that every first name come from The Bible, but in recent decades parents have been given more liberty to bestow  something unique or exotic on their child.

That said, there are plenty of governments that strictly control what people can call their children. Iceland has a Naming Committee formed in 1991 that must approve any new name before it can be officially written on the birth certificate. China’s problems are partially technological, where baby names must be composed of characters that the state computer scanners can read and print on ID cards. Even Spain’s western neighbor, Portugal, regulates baby names, providing an 80 page list of green-lighted names (and 2,600 rejected ones).

Spain's naming laws prohibit names like Judas, Lucifer, and Cain, but 30 Stalins currently live in the country.

English-speaking countries are among the most generous when it comes to parents’ freedom to choose, and other countries, including Spain, seem to be gradually widening their parameters, with citizens insisting that in a true modern democracy the state should have no say in what you name your child. However, numerous studies have shown that parents trying to be original and avoid the status quo are often doing more harm than good, and that names can have a serious impact on a person’s development and treatment.

For example, in 2007 David Figlio from Northwestern University in the US published a study called “Boys Named Sue: Disruptive Children and their Peers” that found that boys with more feminine-sounding names had more disciplinary problems than their male classmates, possibly as a reactionary effect to bullying, and another study showed a positive correlation between unpopular names and juvenile delinquency. Amy Perfors, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, carried out an experiment in 2004 in which she posted 24 pictures on the website www.hotornot.com, where people are rated based on physical appearance. She posted the same picture twice under two different names, finding that the attractiveness ratings differed notably depending on something as subtle as the kind of vowel sound within the name.

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Researchers at Marquette University found that people with unusual names were less likely to be hired; New York University identified links between people with easier-to-pronounce names and higher-status position in the office; and there’s even a study called “Why Susie Sells Seashells at the Seashore” about the phenomenon of “implicit egotism” that leads to an over-representation of people named Dennis or Denise among dentists. What do these studies have in common? They show that a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet, after all, and that names could determine more about a person's life than widely acknowledged.

Lobo may grow up to appreciate his unique moniker. But as parents in Spain and around the world continue to demand more freedom when it comes to naming their children, they might discover that just because you can call your son Superman (which you can) it doesn’t mean you should.

Allison Light is a student at Princeton University.

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