Pet Names Might Have Gotten Too Human
Baby Jeff is a weird (albeit very good!) name, but it’s not as weird as it would have been a century or two ago. In the U.S., and much of the rest of the Western world, we’re officially living in an era of bequeathing unto our pets some rather human names. It’s one of the most prominent reminders that these animals have become “members of the family,” says Shelly Volsche, an anthropologist at Boise State University, to the point where they’re ascribed “agency and personhood.” The animals in our homes commonly receive so many of the acts of love people shower on the tiny humans under their care; pets share our beds, our diets, our clothes. So why not our names, too?
The names and nature of the human-animal bond weren’t always this way. Kathleen Walker-Meikle, a medieval historian at the Science Museum Group and the author of Medieval Pets, has found records from the Middle Ages describing dogs with names that alluded to some part of their physical appearance (Sturdy or Whitefoot), or an object that appealed to their human (a 16th-century Swiss wagoner once owned a dog named Speichli, or “Little Spoke”). Details on cats are sparser, Walker-Meikle told me, but some Old Irish legal texts make mention of a few felines, among them Cruibne (“little paws”) and Bréone (“little flame”).
Even when people-ish names did appear during this era, and the few centuries following, they trended zany, cheeky, cutesy, even pop-cultural—nothing that would be easily mistaken for a child’s given name. The 18th-century English painter William Hogarth named his pug Trump—perhaps an anglicization of a Dutch admiral called Tromp, according to Stephanie Howard-Smith, a pet historian at King’s College London. Catherine Parr, the last of King Henry VIII’s six wives, had a dog called Gardiner, after the anti-Protestant Bishop of Winchester. “This was her enemy, who wanted to destroy her,” Walker-Meikle told me. The idea was “to take the piss out of” him.
Then, as the Victorian era ushered in the rise of official dog breeds, people began to reconceptualize the roles that canines could play in their homes. Once largely relegated to working roles, dogs more often became status symbols, and items of luxury—and as their status grew, so did the list of names they could acceptably bear. People no longer considered it such “a slight, necessarily, to share your name with a dog,” Howard-Smith told me. Diminutive names for animals—Jack or Fanny rather than John or Frances—became more common, too, paving the path for even more overlap down the line.
The big boom happened in the 20th century, and by its latter half, lists of the most popular dog and baby names were getting awfully hard to tell apart. Nowadays, you could probably “go to a playground and shout ‘Alice!,’ and perhaps both dogs and girls would come rushing to you,” says Katharina Leibring, an expert in language and dialect at Uppsala University, in Sweden. Cats, meanwhile, seem to “have been kind of behind the curve in getting human names,” or perhaps receiving any names at all, Volsche told me. Even in 19th-century texts, Howard-Smith has spotted accounts from families who named their dogs, but would refer to “the cat” as only that.
Findings such as these have held true across several countries, but pet naming trends have never been universal. In Taiwan, for example, dogs and cats might get food names, onomatopoeic names, or even English human names, such as Jasper or Bill. They don’t, however, “get Chinese human names,” which hold particular significance, says Lindsey Chen, a linguist at National Taiwan Normal University. “We love them, but they’re not humans.” In Togo, the Kabre people sometimes name their dogs with pointed phrases—such as Paféifééri, or “they are shameless”—that, when spoken aloud, communicate their frustrations with other humans without confronting them directly.b
American animals who lack human-esque names aren’t loved any less, but the degree of intimacy we have with modern companion animals may almost demand anthropomorphism. Joann Biondi, a photographer in Miami, does not view her Maine coon as a “pet”; a frequent model for her artwork, he is her travel companion, her roommate, her business partner—“a creature who shares my life,” she told me. When she adopted him 13 years ago, she wanted a name befitting of his dignified features. But he also “looked like a hairy Italian soccer player,” Biondi told me, so she chose Lorenzo, sometimes tacking “Il Magnifico” on to the end.
Several experts told me they’d feel a bit uncomfortable if a close family member decided to name a new pet after them. “There is still a reluctance to call animals things that really make them sound indistinguishable from a human,” Walker-Meikle told me. But some pet owners are downright inspired by that uncanny valley, including Sean O’Brien, an enterprise-software salesperson in Iowa, who deliberately sought out a very human name for his cockapoo, Kyle. “It’s just funny to see people’s reactions, like, ‘Did you say Kyle?’” he told me.
A smidge of the species barrier can still be found in the ways some owners play with their pets’ names. Howard-Smith’s family dogs, Winnie and Arabella, have been gifted some unhuman monikers: Babby Ween, the Weenerator; Bubs, Bubski, Ballubbers, Ballubber-lubbers. Volsche’s pug, Lucy, is frequently dubbed Pug Nugget, Chunky Monkey, and Lucy, Devourer of Snackies, Demander of Attention. My own cats, Calvin and Hobbes, enjoy titles such as Chumbowumbo, Chino Vatican, Fatticus Finch, Herbal Gerbil, and Classic Herbs. Children with nicknames this unhinged would suffer all kinds of public humiliation. But with pets, “I think we can be a bit freer,” Howard-Smith told me. It’s funny; it’s embarrassing; it’s “a snapshot into someone’s relationship with their pet.” These are the impromptu names that are offered up in private, and the animals can’t complain.
Means and Owens, Baby Jeff’s people, plan to keep giving their animals starkly human names. In addition to the cat, their home is also shared by a quartet of chickens: Ludwing van Beaktoven; Johenn Sebastian Bawk; Brittany, Jr. (named for Means, of course—“it was my turn,” she told me); and Little Rachel (named for their human roommate). The next bird they adopt will be named Henjamin, in honor of Means’s brother Ben. But Means and Owens, too, have a sense for which names just don’t feel quite right. “I knew this guy with a cat named Michael,” Means said. “Every time I think of it, it blows me away.”
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