My next-door neighbors just had a baby, announcing the birth with a pink lawn sign that says, “It’s a girl!” However, the space where you’re supposed to fill in the name of the baby was left blank. When my sister and her friend Jenn asked why it was blank, I suggested that maybe our neighbors hadn’t picked out a name yet. Jenn responded to this with “Babies can’t leave the hospital until they have names. It’s a law.” When I stated that this wasn’t true and asked where she had gotten her information, Jenn became all agitated and twirly, screaming, “Don’t you think I’m credible? You shouldn’t go around making fun of other people’s belief systems.” Because she won’t believe me or tell me where she obtained her idea, I’ve come to you to set Jenn straight. Is there really a law that says babies can’t leave the hospital without first being named? –Jessica, Glenville, New York

Challenging someone on a statement of fact is making fun of their belief system, huh? That’s great. I should send that one to Bill Clinton.

Laws regarding names are mostly handled at the local level, so I hesitate to generalize. But New York state does not prevent unnamed newborns from leaving the hospital, and I’d be amazed if any jurisdiction did. What does Jenn think, the hospital is going to risk an accusation of false imprisonment and the insurance company is going to pay for an extra day’s stay just because the new mom and pop can’t make up their minds? In fairness to Jenn, though, hospital staffers often pres-sure parents to name their kids right away, evidently on the theory that an unnamed person is a potential mon-key wrench in the machinery of state.

As a matter of common law you have the right to use any name you want without legal proceedings of any kind, provided you’re not trying to defraud someone. I don’t know that the issue has ever come before a judge, but presumably this means you have the right not to name your kid. For that matter, there’s nothing to prevent you from using an unpronounceable symbol, a la the artist formerly known as Prince, although more on that below.

Your legal rights notwithstanding, many people–including a lot of hospital functionaries–have an ingrained sense that not naming your child, or at least not exhibiting any urgency in the matter, is an unnatural act. Many hospitals have a “name lady,” often a volunteer, who comes around to ask for the newborn’s name before the family goes home. Typically you can apply for the child’s social security number at the same time. If you play ball and name names, the service is free. But if, as you’re legally entitled, you want to send the name in later, you may be hit with a fee, and worse, you may incur the wrath of the name lady.

One hospital spokeswoman told me that when she was born 30 years ago in a Catholic hospital in Connecticut, her mother planned to name her Paige with no middle name. But a nun, armed with the certainty that only nuns can have, informed mom that no child was allowed to leave the hospital without two names. Glancing around, the mother spotted a box of Kimberly-Clark tissues and decided to name her daughter Kimberly Paige. (The child was never called anything but Paige.) It seems doubtful that the now-defunct hospital actually had a two-name policy, but you can see Jenn’s “belief system” goes back a long way.

If you want to change your name, you can just go ahead and change it without getting permission (married women who adopt their husbands’ last names do it routinely). Nonetheless, virtually every jurisdiction has a procedure whereby citizens can petition the local probate court or equivalent to change their names. The rationale for change-of-name statutes is that they affirm your common-law right and put the change of name in the public record. Indeed, a court order may be helpful if you adopt an unusual name and need to persuade a skeptical clerk at the driver’s license office. But such statutes, with their talk of “showing a sufficient reason for the proposed change,” don’t sound very voluntary, and one can’t help but think that the bureaucrats want people to think the process is compulsory, lest wise guys gum up the works.

Take that ex-Prince fellow. In 1997 he was in federal court in Chicago, defending himself against a copyright infringement suit. Lawyers referred to him as “the Artist,” “the Symbol,” or some similar dodge. Legal documents used the Glyph Without a Name. But finally the judge got fed up and ordered everyone to refer to the defendant as Prince Rogers Nelson, the name bestowed on him at birth. Clearly his honor was thinking, I’ll take my chances with the ACLU–just give me something I can pronounce.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.