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Maybe we need a law banning unusual names?

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Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2013 12:00 am

While looking over the lists of best film and best actors in preparation for Sunday night's Academy Award ceremony, something unusual caught my eye. One of the nominees for best actress in a leading role is 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis for her performance in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Quvenzhané is, to say the least, an unusual name. As such, it's attracted a good deal of media attention. Most stories about her include the name's phonetic pronunciation: "Kwuh-VEN-ja-nay." And there's been much written about whether Wallis' age is too young to be put in the bright lights or whether she might eventually suffer from the emotional flameouts that plagued other childhood stars.

Those are reasonable inquiries, given that Quvenzhané is travelling around the country giving national television interviews, answering questions about what she'll wear to the Oscars and what her favorite foods are.

But I may be the first to question the wisdom of naming a child Quvenzhané, which will doom her to a lifetime of people asking her how she got her name, then sheepishly asking that she repeat it. No one outside of her immediate family will ever spell Quvenzhané's name correctly. And good luck with putting the accent mark in the right place.

The trend toward unique names, both male and female, has been growing for several years. And although I believe in freedom of speech, I also believe with equal conviction that children should be given every break from the beginning. An unpronounceable, incomprehensible first name is a curse.

Interestingly, eight industrial nations — possibly more advanced than the United States — have imposed strict laws on what parents can and cannot name their kids: Germany, Japan, China, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand.

Here's a sampling of what the requirements are and which names were rejected: Denmark's strict Law on Personal Names forbids unusual names given strictly at the parents' fancy. Denmark provides a pre-approved list of 7,000 boys and girls names to choose from. Of the more than 1,100 names not listed but reviewed annually, about 20 percent are rejected. Among them have been Monkey, Anus and Plato.

In New Zealand, the Births, Deaths, and Marriages Registration Act of 1995 doesn't allow people to name their children anything that "might cause offense to a reasonable person; or ... is unreasonably long ..." Some that weren't approved include Fish and Chips, Satan and Adolf Hitler.

Sweden's Naming Law, enacted in 1982, requires that all personal names must clearly indicate gender. Rejected: "A," Metallica and Veranda.

Several simple solutions can help parents avoid giving their newborns embarrassing names. Consult with close friends and family to get sound advice. Remember that a name shouldn't be a puzzle. For parents who feel an uncontrollable creative urge, the middle name is the place for self expression. Creative spellings of otherwise common names should also be avoided.

As someone who has spent more than six decades spelling G-U-Z-Z-A-R-D-I to people who struggle to get it right — even after I've told them several times — I know what I'm talking about when it comes to names.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He grew up in Hollywood during cinema's Golden Era. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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