What Names Tell Us About...Animals?
I look at name trends as a window on our culture and values. Usually, my subject is human names. But can the names we give our pets also shed light on our society, human and otherwise?
I've been pondering that since I was sent a link to a scholarly research paper, titled "Parrots are 'more human' than chickens." The study, by Ernest Abel of Wayne State University, was a brief analysis of names given to birds by their owners. Breeds that normally live in the owner's home (e.g. parakeets, cockatiels, canaries) were more likely to be given common human names than outdoor breeds (chickens, doves, peacocks).
Discover Magazine recently reported on the study in a blog post with "ROFL" in its headline. ("Report" is a generous word, here...the research was published back in 2008.) I can understand the giggles, but I'm not ready to dismiss the research out of hand. Let's take a look at the broader pet name context.
Our image of dog names runs to Rover, Patch and Prince, but that no longer matches reality. The hottest names today are cozy antiques like Lucy, Bella, Max and Sam, and preppy surnames like Bailey and Spencer. In other words, we now name our pets a lot like babies.
It's a dramatic change from generations past. Bow Wow Meow, an Australia-based pet tag maker that tracks names of its animal customers, reports a huge shift toward human-style dog names over the past 20 years. Max has become the #1 canine name in the U.S. and England as well as Australia. Names like Lucy, Jake and Sam are similarly hot across the English-speaking world.
Now put the two findings together. Human-style names reflect a more human-style role for pets...and the use of human-style pet names is soaring. Does this point to a shift in the relationship between humans and their animals?
When was the last time you met a cat whose primary role was to patrol outbuildings for mice, or a dog trained to herd sheep? The typical American no longer encounters working animals on a regular basis. Even breeds traditionally bred for jobs like hunting, shepherding and guarding are increasingly likely to live as companion animals. My neighborhood is rife with golden retrievers, none of which are asked to do any retrieving.
I retraced the steps of the "parrots & chickens" researcher informally, looking at dog names in the same internet database. Human-styled names seem to be at least as common for the traditional working breeds as for any others. (Styles vary, of course. Bloodhounds are more likely to be called Maynard or Jethro, Dobermans Winston or Shelby. More to come on this!)
This naming shift may subtly affect our attitudes as well as reflect them. Have you noticed that if you bestow a human-style name on an inanimate object, you can't help but treat it more considerately? Now, how much more powerful must that impulse be when applied to a living, breathing creature?