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The name game

Sabine Devins · 3 Aug 2010, 11:55

Published: 03 Aug 2010 11:55 GMT+02:00

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I have a little footballer on the way. The World Cup fever that gripped Germany a month ago seems to have taken hold inside, and Baby Devins is a kicker. All the action hardly allows a baby-free thought, but at 23 weeks pregnant, there is a lot to think about.

One of the first things my co-creator and I discussed at the beginning of the pregnancy was names. As new parents it will be among the biggest first decisions we make for our child, and it’s a task that can be made even more difficult by German rules.

The quest to find unique baby monikers has led to some outlandish results around the world. In New Zealand, one couple was told they could not name their baby “4real” in 2007 because numerical digits are not allowed. Their solution? They named their son Superman, with the intention of continuing to call him “4real.” Some parents have managed to take things that far because most English-speaking countries have few restrictions on baby names, but in Germany — ever the nanny state — there are quite a few.

When Baby is born, residents must head down to their local Standesamt (civil registry office) to officially register the vital details of their new addition. There German parents find themselves at the mercy of bureaucrats who decide whether the name they put on the birth certificate will get the stamp of approval.

Many of my Canadian friends are choosing gender-twisting names like “Charlie” or “Devon” for girls. But here in Germany, if a name does not properly reflect the baby’s gender, parents had better have a feminine name that lends itself to a gender-bending nickname to put down on the books instead.

Also verboten are names that could cause future humiliation to the child. Along the same lines, babies cannot be named after corporations, though I did recently overhear a new mother introduce her daughter Nike in my OB/GYN’s office. Apparently the bureaucrats will make an exception for babies named after a Greek goddess who also happens to represent a sports equipment company.

Last names are also subject to complicated rules. If both parents opted to keep their family names, they must choose whether their newborn will take on the mother’s or the father’s family name, but not both. According to the Standesamt, the surname chosen for the first-born must be the name given to subsequent children, insuring that that siblings always have the same last name. Furthermore only one surname can be given, which is why one wouldn’t normally see a Günther Schmidt-Henkel on a class roster, unless both his parents hyphenated to “Schmidt-Henkel” when they married.

Happily for expats, they are exempt from these rules. But the Beamte, or public officers, are still known to call local embassies to check that parents are following the rules of their home countries. But being Canadian, this means we could still register a “Papaya Devins” if we wanted to.

However, there are some rules that we’re happy to have applied to us, particularly when it comes to citizenship. Along with the usual questions fielded by pregnant women, expectant expats are also often asked, “Will the baby have dual citizenship?”

For Baby Devins, the answer is yes, according to Alexander Baron von Engelhardt, a German lawyer who specializes in expat legal issues like citizenship and runs the website LG2G: Legal Guide to Germany.

As I’ve mentioned before, my parents are from Germany and were both still German citizens when I was born in a little Canadian prairie town, thus granting me dual German-Canadian citizenship. As a baby born to a German mother in Germany, our child will also be granted German citizenship, despite my Canadian birth. It turns out we’ve already set our baby up with a pretty special gift: dual citizenship for life.

“If the citizenship is inherited, the child has the right to it forever,” von Engelhardt told me.

Story continues below…

Unfortunately for many of my counterparts, giving birth in Germany does not automatically mean citizenship for their babies. Most children born to foreign parents in Germany will have to choose between German citizenship and the citizenship of their parents when they turn 18 under the state’s Optionsmodell, or “option model.” This is the case for children born to naturalized German citizens or those born to permanent residents, explained von Engelhardt.

If one parent is German, the baby gets German citizenship, but dual passports depend on the laws of the other parent's native country.

For people here on a temporary visa, be it work or a spousal visa while their spouse has a work permit, the mother’s visa rights are transferred to the baby. It’s simply a matter of registering the birth with the foreigner’s office (Ausländerbehörde) and the child has the legal right to stay in Germany as long as the mother does.

While my husband and I are exempt from Germany’s naming rules for his or her Canadian passport, we are still expecting a little Fußballspieler, so we’re thinking of names that won’t offend the Standesamt and look good on both German and Canadian passports.

Related links:

Sabine Devins (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

19:31 August 3, 2010 by avotiya
thanks a lot for this very informative article! We have been trying to find out if it is possible to give a double family name to a baby and recently learnt from our German friends that it is not. But your expat insights give us more promising info.
06:51 August 4, 2010 by vonSchwerin
I have had many friends argue with the Standesamt officials to give their children the names they wanted. (To name two examples: Jehuda and Finn.) I mentioned this to another friend, who is a left-wing Social Democrat and a supporter of the nanny state. His explanation is that it is the state's job to protect citizens -- even from themselves or their parents. He insists that if the Standesamt didn't protect little Baby Müller or Baby Schmidt, they would be named "Pepsicola Müller" or "Pepsicola Schmidt."

Of course, there is a risk of Superman Schmidt sitting next to 4Sale Müller in Kindergarten, but I think I prefer the Anglo-American model of not interfering in the family's affairs.
09:25 August 4, 2010 by OMFG
@vonSchwerin - Your friend is correct, it is the state's job to protect its citizens - even from themselves or their parents.

Ever heard of that little innocent child in New Jersey? Have a look at this link, and then tell me that this child is NOT suffering for the name his parents gave him...

18:10 August 4, 2010 by KBCraig
"All your child are belong to us."
21:48 August 4, 2010 by marimay
@ omfg's link

Holy crap what a couple of morons.

It can be so embarrassing to be American sometimes.

With the terrible names people are coming up with for their kids these days (mostly so their kid stands out and pretend to be special), I wouldn't hate it if the US adopted these rules.
15:30 August 6, 2010 by Arlete Soffiatti
I am struggling to find a name for my baby that I don´t know if is going to be born in Germany or in Brazil, where there are some rules to be followed as well.
18:49 August 6, 2010 by Giza The Cat
A simple soulution: If your child will grow up in two cultures and learn two languages......in this case English and German, give the child a name that easily "converts". William/Wilhelm Charles/Carl John/Hans/Johann Louisa/Luise Christina/Christine Anna/Anne There are MANY more names that can be comprehended in German and English speaking countries with little or no spelling or pronunciation changes. These are names my 19th century German kinfolk had and by the early 20th century the spellings and pronunciations were anglicized. If you're raising a dual culture/language family.......reverse the process and switch the names back to a more German versions!

I know a German fellow named "Dennis". I asked him, "How did a nice German boy like you get named "Dennis?" His father was a big fan of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys! So the Standesamt approved of his non-German name.

Germany is one extreme and the USA is the other. Common sense should dictate what a child is named, but the government should stay out of the private choices parents make!
18:56 August 6, 2010 by Emily Entropy
Ze Standesamt allows to give your kid a gender neutral first name if its middle name is "proper", so a girl could be named Charlie if her middle name was e.g. Anna.

Finn shouldn't be a problem though, it's a very common male name in Northern Germany.
19:59 August 6, 2010 by OMFG
@Giza The Cat - "So the Standesamt approved of his non-German name."

Non-German names are not at all the problem - look at the names of the kids in a German kindergarden, there's hardly any "typical German" name anymore (Fritz, Franz, Walter, Heinz, Helene, Martina, Gustav, Egon, Konrad,...), which is a good thing.

It's the gender that needs to be crystal clear from the name. And the dignity of the child that needs to be respected - and here's where common sense comes into the game, and where the Standesamt (representing the government) must have some, in cases where the parents don't (see my first post).
20:45 August 7, 2010 by BrokenTree
This was a very interesting article. I am an American who also happens to be an Indian. I have my "walking" name which is pretty normal and my Indian name which to a nonIndian would seem strange. I have found that some of the most beautiful and unusual names come from West Virginia. Southerners generally use both the first and middle name all the time. Names like Ama Earline, Billy Bob and Billie Jo are just a few examples. A good one is my husband's mother's name - Freddie Marie. I do believe that parents should be cautious about naming their children as it may affect their futures. What company would want to hire someone to represent them if their was something like Batman 4ever Smith, Freedom Dude Brown or MaryJuana Jones. Nicknames are one thing but tying an outrageous millstone like name around a kid's neck is just cruel.
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