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Saved by Our National Historical Illiteracy:

Just ran across a funny case from July 2005. Twenty-one-year-old Ohio residents Scott Christopher Wurgler and his twin brother Matthew Allen Wurgler, decided to change their names to Sacco Vandal and Vanzetti Vandal. No, said the magistrate, because "the name change would be contrary to public policy" (a general legal reason for why name change applications may be denied) -- the new name, he reasoned, was "synonymous with anarchism, wanton destruction and murder." (By the way, five years before, Ohio courts refused to let a man changed his name to "Santa Claus" because this "would mislead children and interfere with society's proprietary interest in the identity of a beloved icon.")

Scott Wurgler objected, for four reasons -- (1) "he wanted a name that he himself selected," (2) the name "would reflect his Italian heritage," (3) "the new name has a pleasant ring to it and he wished to use the name in his rock band and in other business ventures," and (4) "the new name will help him in his future bid for public office" (uh, really?).

The judge reviewing the magistrate's decision disagreed. "Few people are aware of the name 'Sacco' and its connection to the anarchist movement in 20th century America." "Even fewer would associate the name 'Vandal' with the Vandal hoards [sic] of Europe" -- "A check of a White Pages website reveals more than a dozen presumably law-abiding Ohioans with the surname of Vandal." "If the applicant is using the name change to make a statement to society . . . it is a subtle one. Most people won't 'get it' without a short history lesson and a long social commentary." Name change approved.

MCO:
I got turned down for Hercules Rockefeller and Rembrandt Q. Einstein, and ended up getting stuck with Max Power.
2.15.2006 2:31pm
Edward Lee (www):
That's only because you spelled the previous two names incorrectly.
2.15.2006 2:54pm
microtherion:
Another irony of this case is that if "Wurgler" is a name of German origin (and it sure looks that way to me), it means something like "strangler".
2.15.2006 2:57pm
DNL (mail):
Can I touch?
2.15.2006 3:00pm
keatssycamore (mail) (www):
MCO,

You left off Handsome B. Wonderful...
2.15.2006 3:00pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
And they denied that ignorance would set you free. The fools!
2.15.2006 3:06pm
Taimyoboi:
Weren't the Vandals a Germanic tribe? And if so, how would the new name reflect his Italian heritage? I'm running on the assumption that your surname, more so than your first name, are what convey your ethnic heritage.
2.15.2006 3:08pm
Bob Bobstein (mail):
The judge is also vulnerable to being reversed, though. In consulting the White Pages to resolve a case, I think he might be misapplying Scalia's dissent in Cruzan.
2.15.2006 3:09pm
Bob Bobstein (mail):
I should've said "Scalia's concurrence." That would make more sense to apply.
2.15.2006 3:14pm
FC:
"he wished to use the name in his rock band"

So these guys are doing a Ramones, but do they know there's already a band called the Vandals?
2.15.2006 3:15pm
Rami (mail):
Harvard Professor Emeritus Sacvan Berkovitch is named after Sacco and Vanzetti.
2.15.2006 3:39pm
Steve - History Buff:
Our national historical illiteracy is disturbing - as the old history maxim goes, those who don't learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Justice Scalia's Cruzan concurrence mentions using the phone book, but in the context of who should decide difficult social issues (individual states, in his view), not checking to see how common a name with negative historical connotations is. Still, it's hard to imagine that an appeals court reversing the judge simply because the judge mentioned using the phone book in his opinion - should a judge be reversed for quoting poetry or a novel in his dicta? If the judge correctly applied the law, his decision should stand.
2.15.2006 4:00pm
B. B.:
Sad that they would reject Sacco Vandal, but would probably absent-mindedly let a name like Michael Hunt, Harold Balz, and the like through.

Of course, by the phone book test they should get through -- many have the last name of Hunt, and at the very least there was a gentleman attending my law school with the last name of Balz.

This post brought to you the Max Power way: wrong, but faster!
2.15.2006 4:17pm
lucia (mail) (www):
I'm running on the assumption that your surname, more so than your first name, are what convey your ethnic heritage.

This may or may not be a good assumption. Given the level of intermarriage between different ethnic groups in the US, this may be unwarranted assumption. My first name matches the ethnicity of my Cuban grandmother; my maiden name matched the ethnicity of the Irish grandfather of my third generation mostly Irish grandfather. My married name matches the ethnicity of my father-in-law!

At a minimum, first names do often convey ethnicity since parents rarely just pull them out of a hat. Many name children for relatives.
2.15.2006 4:55pm
RPS (mail):
This reminds me of Stevens's wine case opinion where he talked about what it was like living through prohibition. Do these older people realize that not everyone was born in 'aught six? When you consider the high number of people who cannot name a single Supreme Court Justice, I feel very confident in saying that at least 90% of people under 40 would have no idea who Sacco or Vanzetti were. At most you might get some name recognition.
2.15.2006 5:13pm
Ubertrout (mail) (www):
Taimyoboi, the Vandals were Germanic, but they went in a tour of vandalism, going through Roman territories, Spain, and settled in North Africa. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandals
2.15.2006 5:20pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I love it when I read something the day before that has bearing on a subject. I commented on a post today in cyberia-l on Information Warfare from a book I finished yesterday on Electronic Warfare, and here is another one.

The book is "Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World" by Nicholas Ostler. And on page 305, it has a great map titled "Germanic Conquests in Western Europe, 5th Century AD". The Ostrogoths are located just inside the Roman frontier, and the Vandals are located right beyond, in what looks like present day Serbia, and a pocket of Visgoths right under the Ostrogoths. Somewhere around 410 A.D., the Vandals, along with Suibi and Alans (who were apparently actually Persian speaking) moved from that area, across the top of Italy, stopping to sack Rome (410), with the three tribes ending up in short order controlling western Spain. The Vandals then continued through to North Africa, taking control of Carthage in 439, building a fleet there, and ultimately becoming a Mediterranean sea power.

It appears that the German tribes, including the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Suibi, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, and Burgundians were being pushed out of central-eastern Europe at that time by the Slavs pushing in from the north east, who were, I believe being pushed by Asian tribes to their east (coming up on the Slavic chapter fairly quickly).

My guess is that the reason that Vandals have ended up with that reputation is that they were involved in the sack of Rome in 410 A.D. on their way to Spain. But, by all indications, they weren't any worse than any other of the German tribes at the time.
2.15.2006 5:43pm
Kent Scheidegger (mail) (www):
We'll see if this works on the italics, Lucia.

You are quite right that people often give children of mixed heritage a first name to reflect the other side of the family, but people also have first names from unrelated groups more often than they have unrelated last names.
2.15.2006 6:45pm
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
The Vandals actually gave their name to “Andalucia” — you know, that part of southern Spain that Arabs think belongs to them.
2.15.2006 8:07pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Kent,
The italics problem was fixed-- presumably by Dr. Volokh. (Thanks you.)

Strangely enough, I know quite a fe people with last names are entirely unrelated to their ethnicity. My mother-in-law's family changed their last name to obscure the fact they were Polish. They did this so successfully, I didn't even know my mother in law was of 1/2 Polish ancestry until I'd been married for 5 years! I know several other families who did the same thing.

Needless to say, all these families picked neutral non-ethnic sounding first names for their children.

That is admittedly a digression vis-a-vis the more important criticism of these young men's name choice. Taht is: Does it make sense for these young men to want first, rather than last, names to reflect their Italian heritage?

I think the answer is sure it makes some sort of sense. Many pick ethnic sounding first names for this reason. Others avoid picking them for that reason -- but it's still a common enough desire.

If the names are dumb, it's not because picking first names to reflect your heritage is an odd, stupid or misguided notion.
2.15.2006 8:22pm
R. Gould-Saltman (mail):
Doc:

Did Santa appeal? I'd have taken it up.

Society's "proprietary interest in the identity of a beloved icon"? So in Ohio I can change my name neither to "Herod Escariot Manson Hitler", NOR to "Jesus Easter Bunny Tooth Fairy God"?


What are they smokin' out there in the Buckeye State these days?!

Makes me glad I live in the state that gave its imprimitur to Nikki Sixx, Rainbow Wave, and at least one Jesus Christ.
2.15.2006 8:27pm
Kieran Jadiker-Smith (mail):
It seems a little bit silly that more restrictions apply to a name chosen in adulthood than a name given at birth. Presumably, if George and Martha Claus of Peoria choose to name their son (or, uh, daughter) "Santa," no one will step in to defend society's proprietary interest in the identity of a beloved icon. Though perhaps someone should step in to defend the child's interest in not having a name that will subject him (or her) to years of schoolyard ridicule, thus turning the angry young Santa into an anarchist vandal, or worse yet, someone who spends hours each day bloviating about the evils of gays in the military on internet message boards.

Won't you please think of the children?
2.15.2006 9:11pm
JPF (mail):
I find my eminently qualified to comment here because these two clowns are from my current city of domicile, Brusnwick, Ohio (about 25 miles south of Cleveland, right down I-71).

Their story is pretty interesting, in that these chaps used to (I see it's now off the air at present) a cable access political talk show in the 1.00am hour on Friday nights called "New Day Rising," which consisted of these two long-haired brothers sitting around with two other long-haired guys and ripping on the government, federal, state, and local. Each show began with: "This is New Day Rising, where the government is always wrong."

The "set" was typical public access fare: set up in what looked like one of the guys' basement rec room, complete with patio door and off-white couch. They smoked on air and drank on air. Oh yes...can't forget the "Don't Tread on Me" flag hanging above the couch.

Then there were the skits. These jokers would "act" out famous scenes in American history, with no costumes hardly but for a white wig to delineate either a Founder or someone's wife/mother (the latter complete with high-pitched voice). The skits would be incomplete, badly acted with little to no script, and would serve merely to provide a (normally incomplete or wrong) historical perspective that supported their seemingly anarchic views.

I also remember one of the two brothers asking for my vote in the Ward 3 Brunswick City Council special election about three years ago. Surreal, quite.

Here's a link to the Medina (Ohio) Gazette story on the name change, complete with quotes from the judge and some more background on these two:


One last thing before I go (who sang that?)--one particular episode of the Vandals, nee Wurglers' television "program" sticks out. As they explained, apparently a Brunswick police officer had seen the program, complete with its blue language (one reason the show aired at 1.00am was its liberal use of "fuck" and "shit"). This officer lodged a complaint with the cable access organization, and as the Vandals said, also launched an investigation of the show for criminal sanctions. The Vandals and their cohosts had a field day with this and peppered this episode with more blue language along with not nice things about this Brunswick officer.

And that's just the type of folks they are.
2.15.2006 10:31pm
Devin McCullen (mail):
I'm reminded of the episode of Friends where Joey decides he wants to come up with a stage name, and Chandler talks him into using Joseph Stalin. Although the funniest bit to me was the episode's coda, where Joey walks out on a stage for an audition, and asked for his name, replies "Holden McGroin".
2.15.2006 10:47pm
Barry P. (mail):
"that part of southern Spain that Arabs think belongs to them."

Arabs don't think that any part of Spain belongs to them, except perhaps the villas that have been purchased by Arabs. When Spain was an Islamic country, the ruling moslems were Berbers. Their ethnic roots are not Arabic.

You seem to be confusing ethnicity and religion. Most of the posters here are smart enough to know the difference.
2.16.2006 6:41am
Neal Lang (mail):
(4) "the new name will help him in his future bid for public office" (uh, really?).

Probably lives in a college town and wants to run for city council.
2.16.2006 10:58am
Wrigley:
Those crazy "college towns" with all their educated people running around . . . can't we just round them up and send all intellectuals away for "re-education" like Mao did?
2.16.2006 11:15am
Neal Lang (mail):
Sad that they would reject Sacco Vandal, but would probably absent-mindedly let a name like Michael Hunt, Harold Balz, and the like through.

I recall a girl in highschool who was name "Ietta Dickie". When the proctor would call attendence in "study hall", and Ietta was absent it would always draw a chuckle.
2.16.2006 11:17am
Neal Lang (mail):
Those crazy "college towns" with all their educated people running around . . . can't we just round them up and send all intellectuals away for "re-education" like Mao did?

I was thinking more along the "anarchist" line.
2.16.2006 11:37am