Why can’t you name your child Engifer, Hel or Prinsessa in Iceland?

It does not matter where in the world you come from, naming a child is serious business. New parents are sure to feel the pressure and responsibility that comes with deciding what a person should be called for the rest of their life. And all before that nameless person can even hold their head up without support, let alone express emotion when being called some new age hippy name.

In Iceland one could imagine the whole process is a lot less stressful seeing that we have our own committee taking part in the big decision. The committee is called Mannanafnanefnd (dare you to say the fast three times!) or Icelandic Naming committee. Their job is described as follows on their webpage: “The Icelandic Naming committee maintains an official register of approved Icelandic given names and is the governing body of introduction of new given names into the culture of Iceland. The Personal Names Register is available to the public. In many cases parents use the database as a guide when choosing a name. If the name they have in mind is not in the register they can fill out a special form and request whether the name will be considered allowable by law. If the committee rules positively on a request the name will be added to the Personal Names Register. The register is stored and maintained at Registers Iceland and is accessible through the national portal Ísland.is.”

Fined for taking to long
In Iceland children are normally not named straight after birth as parents want to take some time to get to know the child before naming it. They can’t take too long though as the laws state that a child has to be named six months after its birth, otherwise the parents will be fined.

And when deciding on a name for a child parents must stick to a list of names previously approved by Mannanafnanefnd. But if the name the parents have their eyes on is not on the list not all hope is lost. They can send a request and ask for the name to be approved.

This little guy sure would make a great Engifer Ofur Jónsson – to bad he can’t. Photo/Shutterstock

Limit set to three proper names
All is not fair in love and naming though as the committee does have some pretty strict rules. For example, names must be able to be incorporated into the Icelandic language and be declined in accordance to the Icelandic grammar. One condition is also the names are not to embarrass the child so in the past names like Ljótur (Ugly), and Lofthæna (Luft Hen) have been declined. Examples of other names Mannanafnanefnd has declined are Engifer (Ginger), Grimmi (Cruel), Járnsíða (Ironside) and Ofur (Super) for boys and Gull (Gold), Hel (Death) and Prinsessa (Princess) for girls. Also, children cannot have more than three proper names and gender-inappropriate names are normally not allowed.

Of course, this system and its set of rules is not approved by everyone and some have fought authorities. An example that made international headlines is the case of Blær Bjarkardóttir, a 15-year-old. The word Blær is a male word and was therefore not permitted as a name for a girl. The case was taken to the capital’s District Court. Blær won the case and was at 15 granted the right to legally use the name she had been given.

Why is everyone son or dóttir?
Icelandic names differ from most current Western family name systems by ending in the suffix –son (“son”) or –dóttir (“daughter”)? That is because in Iceland the name systems are patronymic and occasionally matronymic. Meaning that the surnames indicate the father, sometimes the mother, of the person but not the historic family heritage like in most other countries. Complicated? Relax, we have a diagram.

A very simple and traditional family tree that shows the patronymic naming system. Photo/Wikipedia

So, if a couple named Jón and Guðrún have a daughter they decide to name Sigríður her surname will be Jónsdóttir. Jón and Guðrún could also decide for her surname to be matronymic. Then it would be Guðrúnardóttir. There also is the possibility to use both parent’s names as a surname. Anna’s name then being Anna Guðrúnardóttir Jónsdóttir.

Family names on the other hand are not that common, they exist but are mainly inherited. Before the year 1925 it was legal to just casually adopt family names. The most famous example of that practice being Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Kiljan Laxness born Halldór Guðjónsson. Now adopting family names is not allowed and a person must have a legal right through inheritance to do it. A bit of a bummer really, otherwise all of us here would have the family name Niceland.

For further information (if heavy legal stuff floats your boat): Personal Names Act