Every now and again, someone is kind enough to send me something like this TikTok, claiming that certain names are illegal in the US.

On some level, I get it. We’re curious about outlandish names. (And there are some truly eyebrow-raising choices out there.) Some names feel so burdensome that we feel like there outta be a law, right?

But generally speaking, you can name your baby nearly anything you like in the US.

Let’s cover some basics before talking about the names that aren’t illegal. Spoiler alert: some of these would be rejected, at least in some states.

Note: I’m not a lawyer. And, in at least two cases, I’m aware that these names have been in the news because of related court cases. But … that’s not nearly the same thing as saying that they’re illegal, full stop.

NAMING IN THE US

  • States register births and issue birth certificates, not the federal government. Your birth certificate is issued by Maryland or California or Wisconsin – wherever you were born. States set regulations – and there are some.
  • States requirements vary. Generally speaking, many states limit names to the 26 letters of the English alphabet. But not all! In California, José must be Jose – even though your Spanish teacher would deduct points for missing the accent. In North Carolina, though? José is okay. A few of the regulations can be found here, but even they’re not all black and white.
  • More laws exist around surnames than firsts. In the past, most children received their father’s surname by default. That’s changing, though laws haven’t necessarily caught up. And the rules are sometimes different for married versus unmarried parents. But again, it’s all determined at the state level.
  • Middle names exist in a gray area. We assume that a first, middle, and last name have always been the standard. (Or at least since, say, the Middle Ages.) But that’s not quite true. In fact, the first US government form to include a space for a middle name was the registration card for military service during the first World War. The majority of Americans had a middle name by the early twentieth century, but not all. On a related note, while children typically receive a Social Security Number and card at birth in the US now, that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
  • Another common rule? Names can only have a certain number of total characters. It might not be illegal to name your baby girl Princess Consuela Banana Hammock Kennedy-Hamilton-Washington, but if that means her name exceeds 40 characters? Then the character limit creates a problem, at least in Massachusetts.
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NAMES THAT AREN’T ILLEGAL

KING, QUEEN, MAJESTY

Some governments do ban titles. In Australia, King, Queen, and Majesty would all fail the test. (At least under this New South Wales policy.) In the US, though? Such names are legal and quite popular.

  • Over 1,200 boys were named King, in 2023 alone. That makes it the #266 name in the US, more popular than former favorites like Lawrence, Ronald, and Douglas.
  • An additional 128 girls were named Queen. That’s far rarer than King, but from 1880 through 1959, Queen regularly appeared in the US Top 1000. (1880 marks the first year for which data is available.)
  • Majesty was given to 155 girls and 60 boys in 2023. The name has never cracked the US Top 1000, but it’s been in use since at least the 1990s.
  • Equally grandiose names, including Reign, Royal, Royalty, Prince, and Princess, appear in the current US Top 1000.

JESUS CHRIST, SANTA CLAUS

Jesus ranks #172 for boys in the US as of 2023. Santa doesn’t chart, but it was given to 12 girls that same year.

Remember the part about middle names existing in a gray area? It’s not clear what might cause a government entity to review a first-middle name combination in the first place. And US Census Records are packed with men named Jesus C. Lastname, suggesting that at least some of them are, in fact, named Jesus Christ.

Since Santa is rarer, it’s much tougher to track down use of the name. But it’s clear that some men have legally changed their names to Santa Claus, suggesting that a birth certificate bearing the name would be accepted, too.

ADOLF HITLER

Likewise, Adolf Hitler isn’t illegal as a given name. Prior to World War II, Adolf was a reasonably common name in the US. Five boys were named Adolph – with the PH spelling – in 2023.

But, legal or not, there really aren’t words to describe how unacceptable a first-middle name this would be by today’s standards. Shock and horror seem to be the goal.

The story of the very real Adolf Hitler Campbell is pretty sad. It begins with a controversy over a birthday cake and continues to surface in the media, as the parents lost custody of their children. Despite all of this controversy and pain, at no point was the name itself ruled illegal.

MESSIAH

Back in 2013, a Tennessee judge ordered a young boy’s name legally changed from Messiah to Martin. Why? The judge herself declared that Messiah is a title of deep spiritual significance. For what it’s worth, the child’s parents agreed on his first name; they were in court trying to resolve a number of other issues, including the child’s legal last name. A month later, the ruling was overturned and the judge was ultimately fired.

Also worth noting: Messiah was already the #334 most popular name for boys in the year 2013 and has reached #187 as of 2023. Once again, Messiah isn’t illegal – it’s quite popular. What isn’t permitted? Imposing your own beliefs on a family in your courtroom.

III

There’s no reason you couldn’t name your baby Aaa or Ggg or Ccc. It follows that you could name your kidd Iii. Three letter Is. Is it weird? Yes, plenty. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never been done. But … it is possible. After all, children are named Io. And lots of three letter names rank in the current US Top 100.

Spell your child’s name Three? That’s completely fine. In fact, seven boys were named Three in 2023.

NAMES THAT PROBABLY AREN’T ALLOWED

“@”

Okay, here are names that probably wouldn’t pass muster.

You can’t name your child a symbol, either one that appears on the keyboard or something you’ve drawn.

But, you say, Prince turned his name into a symbol. True, but the artist almost certainly remained Prince Rogers Nelson legally – at least on his passport and bank accounts.

Still, we’re used to seeing stylized names, especially for musicians. Think P!nk, Ke$ha, A$AP Rocky, CHVRCHΞS, and so on. No surprise some parents toy with the idea of doing the same for their children’s names.

1069

Many states won’t accept a number as a given name, either.

Remember Elon Musk and Grimes’ big announcement that they’d named their son X Æ A-12? Not long after, it was revealed that the child’s name is actually X Æ A-Xii, in order to comply with California requirements. They call him X for short.

Weird and unpronounceable is fine. Numbers? Not so much …

The couple subsequently welcomed two more children, Exa Dark Sideræl and Techno Mechanicus, neither with numbers in their names.

ONE LAST NOTE: YOU WON’T BE ARRESTED FOR TRYING TO NAME YOUR KID $@r@.

Attempting to register a non-compliant name won’t lead to arrest, whether that’s José in California or $@r@ almost anywhere. You’re not breaking the law by choosing an off-the-wall name.

Instead, it’s a bureaucratic hassle – a returned birth certificate application, a hospital staffer explaining that your choice isn’t permitted, an hour on hold with your state’s vital records department to find out exactly what’s gone wrong.

But no one shows up at your door to arrest you simply on the basis on what you attempt to name your child. Even when the courts intervene, there’s more to the story.

Does that mean you should name your baby Santa Majesty Xvi? No. That’s a pretty burdensome name for your child. But it’s not the law that will stop you.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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