Names You Can Hug

Jan 17th 2013

Take a look at these two sets of names:



Four names -- Max, Molly, Charlie and Sophie -- occur on both lists. The similarities, though, run even deeper. Both lists are dominated by traditional nicknames, particularly the old-time nicknames found in the "Guys & Dolls" section of the Baby Name Wizard book.

List A shows my past tally of the names most over-represented in children's picture books. When I first published the list, I noted that the picture-book character names hewed closely to a proven formula for "likeability." The authors who chose them, I suggested, were "crafting characters to be fun and approachable, to draw young readers into an imaginary world that's suspended in time and space, and typically a shade cuddlier than reality."

Some readers, though, felt that I was over-reaching. The explanation could be much simpler: the authors just chose names that were easy for budding readers to spell and pronounce.

List B is VPI Pet Insurance's new ranking of the most popular dog names in America. (See more at It's a major change from past generations, when non-human names dominated the pet scene.

The resemblance to the picture book names is unmistakable. Pet owners seem to value the same qualities in a name that picture book authors do...and I feel safe in saying that allowing schnauzers to spell their own names is NOT the driving factor. So what do names like Charlie and Molly represent?

The throwback style, the familiarity and the informality all speak to warmth and connection. These names are a fast-track to affectionate bonding, whether between child and character or between animal and human. Give 'em a hug.

They also speak to friendliness. Molly is a name for a family companion, not a guard dog. (Imagine you meet an acquaintance who's walking a large dog, and they introduce the dog as Charlie. Now imagine the same scene, but the dog is called Tank. Do you approach the dog the same way?)

Finally, the dominance of diminutive forms and sounds represents childhood. The names we give pets reflect the roles we expect them to play in our lives. Based on the current name trends, the phrase "my dog is my baby" has deep roots. We're naming our pets as children who, like picture-book stars, will never grow up.


January 17, 2013 1:49 PM

I have an exceptionally cuddly baby nicknamed Rupert the Tank Engine, so I would probably respond to a dog named Tank with the same huggy enthusiasm as Charlie, or more so. 


I think an even bigger factor than the friendliness and affability of these names is, if not the simplicity of the name for spelling sake, the simplicity of the name for dog comprehension sake. The two syllables, ends in -ee sound is just very easy to yell across a dog park and it's straightforward for a dog to learn that kind of name. Most dogs with longer names end up with an -ee nickname. I agree that the diminutive, cutesy, friendly factor of say, Bertie or Albie instead of Albert is in part responsible, but I think there's also something about how -ee sounds are attention getting to both children and dogs.

January 17, 2013 3:25 PM

Lucubatrix, that makes sense but it doesn't account for the change over the past generation. Spot, Fido, Duke, Rover, Shadow, Tiger etc. didn't have the "ee" ending.

January 17, 2013 6:58 PM

Before I even read through the post I guessed the second list might be dog names....... I know a lot of dogs (and cats) with those names!  I also know a lot of children with names from both list.

I agree they do all sound friendly and cheerful. 

I have always been one to name pets with non-human or slightly ecclectic names, so I don't personally see the appeal but I can see why others do. I also prefer baby names that are firmly not in the cheerful and huggable category but I know I'm an outlier (at least in the real world!).

January 17, 2013 8:25 PM

I've mentioned this before, but as a Molly, I have met SO MANY dogs with my name, or people who've had dogs named it. It's a youthful, happy-go-lucky kind of name that fits very well with children's book characters who never age, and friendly, goofy dogs.

We got a new puppy almost a month ago that we named Sheila (also kid's book character, Judy Blume's Sheila Tubman), but in the few weeks we've had her, even after introductions, people almost always think the puppy's Molly, and I'm Sheila.

January 18, 2013 4:09 PM

Our (sort of) Australian Shepherd is indeed (nick)named Bella, but her full name is Bellicose Wolfe, so not exactly huggy :-).

By moll
January 18, 2013 4:10 PM

I'm a Molly, and have run across the Molly dog phenomenon so much that I recently wrote a blog post called You All Need To Stop Naming Your Dogs Molly!

I wrote that sometimes it's hard to respond when people tell me their dog is named Molly, and your last paragraph hits the nail on the head: "the dominance of diminutive forms and sounds represents childhood. The names we give pets reflect the roles we expect them to play in our lives."

"You have the name I gave to the slobbery, drooly, eternal child in my life" isn't an insult (I love my dog! Dogs are great!), but it isn't exactly a compliment either. But, "Names You Can Hug" is a nice way to put it, at least!

Incidentally,  my name, my sister's name, her two sons' names, AND our nephew's name all appear on the first list. My family certainly picks a style and runs wtih it!

January 18, 2013 7:28 PM

I wonder if a part of it has to do with the fact that in the previous generations of Spot, Fido, and Rover, people were not bringing their pets to dog parks to socialize with lots of other pets, so there was less having to call your dog from across a crowded meadow. But really almost all dogs I know have the -ee ending, and those that don't end in -ee have it internally (Heeeeero).

I found that Shadow, Tiger, Duke, and the like tended to be more applied to cats, in my experience... and cats honestly don't care what they're called, so you might as well call them Lucifer or Mehitabel or something long and complicated with lots of consonant clusters. This may also have to do with less friendly affability of the representative cat.


By EVie
January 26, 2013 4:37 PM

We used to live above neighbors who had a dog named Molly. Molly was a pitbull who would lunge at us every time we crossed paths outside her door :-/ I commented to my husband that "Molly" seemed like an inappropriate name for such a nasty dog, and his response was that it's entirely appropriate if you spell it Maul-ee. 

January 29, 2013 5:03 PM

Very interesting.  My dog is named Ellie.  I just had the experience this weekend of meeting an 18 month old child named Ellie.  Unfortunately (though I tried to avoid it) my dog's name came up and it was a bit awkward.  I just really love the name and it has the easy-to-respond-to e sound at the end.  I read a book once that recommended naming dogs with either an a or e sound at the end because they tend to come better to names ending in those sounds.  It makes sense when you try to call your pet. They respond better to happy sounds.

June 7, 2013 4:10 AM

Charlie is a good name! I found some many here [spam link removed -- no, it had nothing to do with naming]! I am not sure what to choose.

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