What’s in a Name?: In Denmark It’s More Complicated Than You Think

By Kaitlin Allen

From Cricket to Apple, unique baby names have become all the rage in the United States, particularly amongst celebrities.[1] However, not all countries allow for the same level of parental freedom that parents in the United States currently have when naming a child.[2] Denmark is known for having one of the strictest laws when it comes to naming children.[3] Danish parents must choose their child’s name from a list of approximately 7,000 preapproved names or seek approval from both the government and their local church.[4]  Denmark is remarkable for the strictness of its law, but this type of law is not unique to Denmark.[5] Countries often state that these types of laws are designed to protect children from the whims of their parents, protect cultural heritage, and provide order.[6] However, these types of laws are finding themselves increasingly outdated as the world moves toward more diverse names and away from names that are gender specific.

Laws governing parental freedom when it comes to children’s names vary by country.[7] Many countries have some limits on the naming of children, whether it is banning specific names or types of characters.[8] On an international level, the United Nations has established under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, that every child has a right to a legal name and governments must respect a child’s legal name. [9] However, it does not speak to what limitations a government can place on parents who are trying to legally name their child.[10]

There are several reasons why countries may choose to restrict parental freedom in naming  children.[11] For some countries, the concern is that children should not have to suffer for the choices of their parents, and should be protected from some of the more eccentric name choices that have popped up in recent years.[12] For others, the concern comes from wanting to protect cultural heritage.[13] The law in Denmark reflects both concerns.[14]  Danish law prohibits names that are considered too unique.[15] It also restricts certain names that have cultural and historical significance and requires names to have their traditional Danish spelling.[16]

Denmark’s Law on Personal names only applies in instances where one of the parents is Danish.[17] It dates back centuries and was initially designed to stop the practice of patronymics.[18] Patronymics are the practice of combining the father’s name with the word for either son or daughter.[19] This resulted in families changing their last names with every generation.[20] The practice  created a bureaucratic nightmare and made it difficult to trace familial history.[21] Creating consistent surnames in place of patronymics was the initial intent of the law and the addition of regulating first names occurred later on.[22] The Law on Names prevents certain surnames from being adopted.[23] This was designed to appease the nobles who were worried about people taking their last names.[24] It was not until the 1960’s after someone tried to name their child Tessa, which is similar to the Danish word for urine, that the law was expanded to include first names.[25]

Under Danish Law, every child must be given a first and last name by the time that they are six months old.[26] Denmark has a list of approximately 7,000 names that have been preapproved for use by parents.[27] If parents would like to deviate from the approved list of names, there is an application process involving both the church and the government that must be completed.[28] First, parents must seek approval from their local parish because that is where all names are registered.[29] Once the parents make a request for a name not currently on the list, the request is sent to Copenhagen University’s Names Investigation Department and the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs.[30]  Cases are reviewed on a case by case basis by Copenhagen University, which is primarily responsible for applying the law.[31] In 2004, there were approximately 1,100 names that were reviewed and around 15-20% of them were rejected.[32] The most common reason for a rejection was odd spellings.[33]

In addition to be strict about spelling, Danish law forbids unisex names.[34] Approved names are typically only approved for one gender and cannot be used for the opposite gender.[35] There have been a few exceptions to the rule that names can only be used for one gender.[36] Denmark is one of three countries with an explicit ban on unisex names.[37]  In addition to the three countries that explicitly ban gender neutral names, Germany looks at gender neutral names on a case by case basis to determine if they are harmful to a child.[38] However, around the globe, unisex or gender-neutral names are increasing in popularity.[39] Laws that limit names to a specific gender are finding themselves increasingly out of date.[40]

Denmark’s law on names is problematic for several reasons. The requirement that names reflect gender is an outdated concept and reinforces a gender binary.  Additionally, the list of preapproved names limits the diversity of names available to parents who do not want to seek approval for their child’s name.

Denmark has a fairly strong record when it comes to protecting LGBTQ rights.[41] Rainbow Europe, which conducts studies of LGBT rights across Europe ranked Denmark eighth in terms of LGBT protections.[42] Denmark was second in the category of “Legal Gender Recognition and Bodily Integrity.”[43]  Since 2014, transgender individuals have been able to legally change their gender without undergoing any type of surgery.[44] In 2018, it was proposed that these rights be extended to children under the age of 18.[45] Denmark’s other LGBT friendly protections do not mesh with it strict naming rules which emphasize an outdated gender binary.

Denmark’s law requires parents to get approval if they would like to name their children something that is not on the government’s list of pre-approved names.[46] Most of the approved names are of English and Western European origin.[47] This allows for very little variety in names for parents who do not want to seek government approval for their child’s name.[48] Denmark has sought to protect its cultural heritage through traditional Danish spellings of names and approving names that are more traditional. [49] This has come at the cost of embracing diversity and recognizing the rich cultures that exist around the world. Denmark should decrease its emphasis on preserving traditional Danish names and allow for more names that reflect the increasingly multi-cultural nature of the world today.

Children’s names are becoming more unique in today’s world. The strict naming laws of countries such as Denmark are finding themselves increasingly outdated as the world moves towards gender neutral names from a variety of origins. Denmark must update its laws to reflect the trends of the new millennium.

[1] Unusual baby names: The celebrity kids' names you'll never forget, Glamour, Aug. 17, 2018, https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/gallery/unusual-celebrity-baby-names

[2] Caitlin Dewey, 12 countries where the government regulates what you can name your child, The Washington Post, May 3, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/05/03/12-countries-where-the-government-regulates-what-you-can-name-your-child/?utm_term=.751a0011a8c2.

[3] Lizette Alvarez, Jens and Vita, but Molli? Danes Favor Common Names, N.Y. Times, Oct. 8, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/08/world/europe/jens-and-vita-but-molli-danes-favor-common-names.html.

[4] The Strict Name Laws of Denmark, World Atlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-strict-name-laws-of-denmark.html (last visited Sept. 1, 2018).

[5] Alvarez supra note 3.

[6] The Strict Name Laws of Denmark, supra note 4; Dewey supra note 2.  

[7] Isabelle Khoo, Illegal Baby Names: Countries With Strictest Naming Laws, HUFFINGTON POST CANADA, May 4, 2015, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/05/04/illegal-baby-names-countries-with-strict-laws_n_7061544.html.

[8] Dewey, supra note 2.

[9] Eldar Sarajlic, The Ethics and Politics of Child Naming, 35 J. of Applied Phil. 121 (2018).

[10] See, Id.

[11] Alvarez, supra note 3; The Strict Naming Laws of Denmark, supra note 4.  

[12] The Strict Naming Laws of Denmark, supra note 4. 

[13] Carlton F.W. Larson, Naming Baby: The Constitutional Dimensions of Parental Naming Rights, 80 Geo.Wash. L. Rev. 159 (2011).

[14] Alvarez, supra note 3.

[15] Id.

[16] The Strict Naming Laws of Denmark, supra note 4; Alvarez, supra note 3.

[17] Alvarez, supra note 3.  

[18] Id.

[19] Danish Family Names, Visit Denmark, https://www.visitdenmark.com/denmark/history/danish-family-names (last visited Sept. 3, 2018).

[20] Id. 

[21] Id; Alvarez; supra note 3.

[22] Alvarez, supra note 3.


[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Navne, Ankestyrelsen,  https://ast.dk/born-familie/navne (last visited Sept. 2 2018).

[27] Alvarez, supra note 3.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Roslyn Costanzo, Unisex Baby Names are Illegal in These 4 Countries, Huffington Post Canada, Sept. 19, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/09/19/banned-baby-names_n_12090708.html.

[35] Alvarez, supra note 3.

[36] Id.

[37] Costanzo, supra note 15.

[38] Why gender-neutral baby laws are on the rise, Associated Press, Mar. 21, 2018, https://nypost.com/2018/03/21/why-gender-neutral-baby-names-are-on-the-rise/.

[39] What’s in a name: Gender-neutral baby names are on the rise, The Associated Press, Mar. 21. 2018, https://wtop.com/living/2018/03/whats-in-a-name-gender-neutral-baby-names-are-on-the-rise/.

[40] Id.

[41] LGBT Rights in Denmark, Eqauldex, https://www.equaldex.com/region/denmark (last visited Sept. 2, 2018).

[42] Country Ranking, Rainbow Europe,  https://rainbow-europe.org/country-ranking (last visited Sept. 3, 2018).

[43] Id.

[44] Denmark: Changing Legal Sexual Identity Simplified, Library of Congress, Jul. 3, 2014,    http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/denmark-changing-legal-sexual-identity-simplified/.

[45] Danish government could allow legal sex change for young transgender people, The Local DK https://www.thelocal.dk/20180606/danish-governmentre -could-allow-legal-sex-change-for-young-transgender-people

[46] Khoo, supra note 7.

[47] Alvarez, supra note 3.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.