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Louise Kennedy: A Tennessee judge has ordered a baby's name to be changed from "Messiah" to "Martin." Naturally, this leads me to reflect on my own experiences naming my two children. In this photo, luggage tags with children's names are displayed in East Montpelier, Vt., Tuesday, May 20, 2008. (Toby Talbot/AP)

Should the parents of a baby in Tennessee be able to name their baby “Messiah”? A judge has ruled that they can’t, and ordered them to call him Martin instead.

I laughed when I first heard this news (and also wondered, idly, why the judge picked “Martin” instead of the more common “Mark” or “Michael” or the more trendy “Max”). First of all, “Messiah” is a pretty ridiculous name, but if lack of ridiculousness were the only criterion, we’d have to rename half the kids in kindergarten today. And second, does the Tennessee judiciary really have nothing better to do with its time? I guess business has kind of tapered off since the Scopes trial.

On one level, of course, this case isn’t funny at all. The magistrate explicitly cited her own Christian faith as one reason for her decision — an argument that leaves me wondering if the phrase “separation of church and state” ever came up in her legal training. But let’s leave those arguments to the scholars, for now, and instead focus a bit on the aspects of the story that Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick (not a bad name itself) deliciously covers, in a survey of laws about baby names in the U.S. and elsewhere.

‘Messiah’ is a pretty ridiculous name, but if lack of ridiculousness were the only criterion, we’d have to rename half the kids in kindergarten today.

I was delighted to learn, for example, that German parents must choose a first name that immediately makes clear the gender of the child. (No Madchens named Madison, I guess.) Spain prohibits “extravagant” names. (One wonders what loophole was available to the parents of Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, more generally known as just plain Picasso.) And even Massachusetts has a rule: No first or last name here can be more than 40 characters long. (Who knew we were so Twitter-friendly?)

Naturally all this naming madness led me to reflect on my own experiences in the field, namely (ha!) in the process of naming my two children. When I was pregnant with our first child, now 15, I was so convinced I was carrying a girl that I focused mostly on girls’ names, leaving the boys’ list to my husband until the last week or so. “Dakota,” he declared. “It’s a great name.”

“No,” I said. “Not unless you’re a cowboy or a starlet.”

“OK,” he replied. “Christian is a good name for a boy.”

“But we’re not really, you know, devout.”

“Right, right, but I was thinking of Fletcher Christian. From ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’ I want my son to be a rebel.”

“Ohhh, OK… So do you like Clare, or Grace?”

Let’s just say that our son is not named Dakota.

And that, after I announced the choice to an old friend, she asked, “But what if, when he grows up, he isn’t?” She reflected a minute. “I guess he could change it to Krishna.”

He hasn’t — not yet, at least. And he seems fine with it, although he does sometimes go by his initials to avoid the subject entirely.

Meanwhile, his sister, now 5, was born in China and came home with us only after what seemed like an eternity of waiting and filling out forms — which started, in fact, three years before she was even born, and ended only a week after her first birthday. That gave us plenty of time to wrangle over names. Ultimately, we decided to name her after my mother — not her first name, Gertrude, because we’re not crazy, but rather by the middle name that Mom herself insisted on using from age 12, when she got tired of her brothers calling her “Dirty Gert, the Farmers’ Flirt,” until the day she died.

Great. I think I’ve found something special and personally meaningful, and yet we still end up in the Top 100. I just hope it’s not the Ashley or Katelyn of this decade.

It’s a lovely name, easy to pronounce and spell, and quite unusual but not weird. Or, at least, that’s what I thought until our first pediatrician’s visit. “I never had an Avery before,” the doctor said, “and now yours is the fourth one this month.”

Great. I think I’ve found something special and personally meaningful, and yet we still end up in the Top 100. I just hope it’s not the Ashley or Katelyn of this decade.

It doesn’t much matter, though. Avery barely knows that that’s her legal name, because when we met her in China, she already called herself by the nickname her caregivers had bestowed: Tao Tao. “It means ‘playful,’” our agency director had told us. Lovely!

Not so fast. “Actually,” said one nanny in China, “it means ‘naughty.’ But we only give it to the very bright children.”

Great. I like to tell Tao Tao that it’s Mandarin for Trixie. And that she should count her blessings: We could have gone with Messiah.

Or, for short, just Mess.

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Tags: Family

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  • J__o__h__n

    I don’t see how this name is worse than the countless number of babies named Jesus, Mohammad, Mary or other religious names that didn’t manage to offend this particular judge. Certainly no worse than Madison, Cody, Dakota, Unique, etc and at least it was spelled correctly.

  • Mrs. G.

    Several years ago we had a student named Messiah in the program in which I was teaching. One of the other teachers refused to call him by name and simply looked at him when addressing him. It worked, but didn’t change anything. He came from a family where all the several siblings had unusual names but one. That one must have felt a bit odd in his family.
    I really don’t think the judge has the right to challenge this name, disrespectful as she may consider it. She might have objected to my daughter’s lovely name Thais. I would have been incensed if she had.

  • Vicki

    These issues arise when naming dogs too. Although, in the case of “Messiah,” there would be other complications. Like calling the pup to you: “Messiah! Come!”

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