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Every once in a while you meet someone with a name where you think, “Surely that name shouldn’t have been allowed.” And quite often the newspapers will publish names that have been denied by the registrar that seem relatively inoffensive. Recently, I wondered what exactly the law says on what names you can and cannot name your baby.

As the nation’s capital and the place where most laws are passed, I decided to start in Canberra at the Australian Capital Territory Registrar-General’s Office’s website. By clicking on a likely link, it took me to the Office of Regulatory Services in the Department of Justice and Community Safety, which handles the registration of births, deaths and marriages as well as other important things, such as parking and rental bonds.

I rang the number on the Contact page, in the naïve hope that the laws on baby names might be printed out for public use – perhaps in a little pamphlet called Beware Parents: Names Forbidden by the Government, or more playfully, Naughty, Naughty Names You Needn’t Think of Using. In my hopeful imagination, this little pamphlet could then be posted to me at the taxpayer’s expense.

No such luck. First there was an amusing problem getting hold of them as my phone system automatically cuts me off if I’m left on hold for more than 40 seconds, and then once I managed to speak to someone, they very kindly pointed me to the website which has all the legislation on it for me to look it up for myself.

Now I must say that the laws are written in a very simple, clear, comprehensible way that anyone of average intelligence with a high school education should be able to follow. The trouble is, I am obviously a moron because I could NOT find the section where it tells you which names are prohibited.

I rang the Births, Deaths and Marriages Office again, and an extremely helpful lady talked me through it and then patiently directed me to the exact part of the legislation where a prohibited name is defined. Amazingly, it was exactly where I had been told it would be. I still don’t understand why it has to be at the end in a glossary – why can’t it have its own heading in the law?

As I read through the list of six things you can’t call your baby, I couldn’t help but be struck by part e) or is, in the registrar-general’s opinion, undesirable. It seemed awfully, well, subjective.

“But doesn’t that mean the registrar-general could ban any name? I mean, what if he didn’t like the name Mary because all the people he knew called Mary were horrible?” I asked my patient helper.

However, it turned out that although a register-general COULD do that, they probably wouldn’t, as they have to back it up with some pretty substantial evidence in the court of appeal. I presume if a registrar-general kept losing cases in the court of appeal it wouldn’t look very good, so they use their apparently limitless powers in a judicious manner.

I asked hopefully if all the states had the same naming laws, but to my disappointment was told that, no, they tended to differ slightly, and I’d have to look up each state and territory one by one. I said goodbye to the Births, Deaths and Marriages staff member, no doubt to her immense relief.

And so it was off to New South Wales Births, Deaths and Marriages, where I discovered that my phone system also cuts me off if I’m left talking to an automated phone message for more than 40 seconds.

Eventually I was put through to a charming girl called, I believe, Mikayla. Mikayla also helped me navigate the complexities of the NSW legislation page, and when the necessary Act refused to appear when I hit “search” gave me the obvious advice, which was to Google it. Of course! Why hadn’t I though of that? Because I’m a dullard who needs everything explained patiently and slowly, it would seem. Even when I Googled, and got to the right document, I could NOT find the place where it defines a prohibited name. Mikayla found it for me, and I still have no idea how she did it. Clearly our tax dollars are being well spent.

The NSW only had four things you couldn’t call your baby; two less than the ACT. But once again (d) is contrary to the public interest for some other reason seemed almost wilfully vague. Asking Mikayla for some more guidance on this issue, I asked her what kinds of names might be banned under point d). “For example, what if you wanted to call your baby … um, Watermelon?” I asked, plucking a hypothetical name out of the air.

In Mikayla’s opinion, Watermelon could very well end up being reviewed. “That’s a pretty degrading name to give a child,” she said disapprovingly. This surprised me – Watermelon didn’t seem that crazy; since Gwyneth Paltrow called her daughter Apple, I figured that fruit names are now acceptable. Maybe not. Personally I thought that Watermelon’s parents might have a case if it went to appeal, but Mikayla was quick to add that she wasn’t a lawyer (and therefore her personal opinions should not be taken as legal statements). Feeling immensely pleased that we live in a society where government workers are free to give their personal opinions, I said farewell to anti-Watermelon Mikayla.

And next time you talk to a government employee on the phone and they’re a wee bit tetchy with you – remember that they may have just spent the last half hour talking to an idiotic nuisance like me.

Rather than frazzle any more of them, I just went to each state and territory’s legislation website, since I knew what I was looking for now. Each state and territory had the same basic standards, but some did seem to be slightly stricter – the ACT and Queensland appeared to have the most amount of rules on what names must be avoided. And here they are:

ALL STATES

* Names which are an obscene or offensive word

* Names which are impractical to use because they are too long (I don’t know what defines “too long”, but I presume it means it doesn’t fit into the number of boxes on government forms)

* Names which are impractical to use because they contain characters with no phonetic significance eg J @ yne, Jasm!ne, J00lia, J*nn*f*r or Je$$ica

* Names which are impractical to use for some other reason (in NSW, a blank space, a Medicare number and the number 7 have all been denied; in one case the name X was knocked back, but A and B have been allowed in WA)

* Names which include or resemble an official rank or title eg Lord, Lady, Princess, Queen, Sir, Doctor (However, a NSW couple successfully won the right to call their son Duke in 2009, so in some cases these might win on appeal)

* Names which are contrary to the public interest for some other reason

The last one leaves a margin for interpretation. In NSW, the names Jesus Christ and Ned Kelly have been rejected as inappropriate, yet the names God Bless and Fully Hektic Sik have been deemed officially acceptable (God Bless? Really? I mean the child’s first name is actually God ….) In New Zealand, parents have been unsuccessful in their attempts to call their children Adolf Hitler and Satan. No word on whether it’s happened here, but WA registrar Alan Andersson has said that Adolf Hitler and Satan would definitely be on the naughty list here as well. I’m now thinking Watermelon would almost certainly get through. Surely it’s better than Fully Hektik Sik.

QUEENSLAND

The first and middle names cannot form a sentence or a statement. The examples that the legislation gives are Save Mother Earth or Down With Capitalism, but would also cover Chocolate Is Yummy and that other New Zealand reject, Tallulah Does The Hula In Hawaii. However, these names could be banned in other states under the vague reason of “contrary to the public interest”.

ACT

* The name cannot sound similar to the name of a body or organisation. So no Redd Kross or Salvation-Armi, I presume.

* The part about “contrary to the public interest” is replaced with “in the registrar-general’s opinion, undesirable”. I don’t know whether this makes any difference, nor do I know whether this means the ACT is more conservative or more liberal in its views.

There you have it – that’s what the law says about choosing a name for your child. By the way, if you are thinking to yourself, “But my great-grandmother’s name was Princess,” or “My neighbour’s parents were hippies, and his name is Dolphins Are People Too,” the legislation was only introduced in the 1990s.

So if you’re worried that the name you’ve chosen may be “too weird” – relax. Because if it gets through the birth registration process, and they rubber stamp it, it’s officially not too weird.

And when you meet a child or teenager and you think the name their parents chose is “too weird” – remember that their name has already been scrutinised under the law, and if they were allowed to register it, then by the standards of our nation, their name has already been judged to be “not too weird”. Yes, even A, B, God and Fully Hektic Sik.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the Registries of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the ACT and NSW for their valuable assistance. Information on names which have been rejected and accepted in certain states comes from articles in The Sunday Telegraph and Perth Now. The couple who successfully appealed to call their son Duke were featured on Channel 7’s “Today Tonight”.

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