Pet Name Trends: The Changing Names of Cats and Dogs

Mar 1st 2012

I was recently given the best kind of name-geek treat: a peek at a whole new data set. mined its records to find the dog and cat names that have risen and fallen the most in popularity over the past decade. (You can read Vetstreet's report on the rising and falling names, including comments from me, on their site.)

I've seen other lists of popular pet names, and even compiled some myself. It's clear that pet names are increasingly chosen from the world of human names, with Max and Lucy supplanting Spot and Fluffy. But looking at the specific names that are trending up and down is revealing -- about how we view our pets, and about how we view different kinds of names. Looking at the Vetstreet trends as a whole, here are some of the big themes I see:

Which Animals Are Most Human?

Both research and intuition suggest that giving an animal a human-style name generally points toward a more human-style role for the pet in the family. Based on names, then, dogs are treated as more human than cats. (Supporting this idea: the phrase "my dog is my baby" yields four times as many Google results as "my cat is my baby.")

That difference used to be a huge one, with descriptive names like Snowball and Patches and cat-specific names like Tigger and Tabby dominating the feline arena. Since the year 2000, though, the dog-cat gap has narrowed dramatically. If you look at the top 10 names for male and female cats today, 14 of the 20 are also common human names. For dogs, the number is 15 of 20. The fastest-falling cat name list is packed with names like Whiskers, Tiger and Miss Kitty, while the rising names include Henry, Stella and Zoey. Watch your backs, dogs, the cats are on the move.

Pet Sex Discrimination?

The narrowing cat-dog gap looks like a move toward pet equality, but a new gap is rising -- a gender gap. I was fascinated to see that female pet names are trending human much faster than male pet names. The numbers in the previous paragraph showed that 72.5% of the top pet names are common human names. That turns out to break down to 50% of male names, 95% of female.

What's more, single-sex pet names are soaring. The fast-falling names are full of unisex classics like Snowball, Lucky, Whiskers, Pepper and Shadow. The fast-rising names names are almost all sex-specific. In fact, for dogs even the hot non-human names are ultra-macho ones like Diesel, Tank and Thor. Apparently, we want to be secure in our dogs' masculinity.

Looking Past Looks

There's another way to read the movement from Snowball and Shadow toward Diesel and Thor. It's a movement away from physical descriptions of pets, toward names that indicate  personalities or roles. That's yet another sign that pets are viewed more and more as companions and individuals. It's telling, I think, that despite the powerful trend toward human names, Buddy is challenging Max for the #1 spot among dogs' names.

Following Human Name Trends

Here's a graph of the human popularity of the fastest-rising female dog names, made with the NameVoyager Expert Edition:

and the fastest-falling female dog names:

It makes sense that as pet names become more human, they'll increasingly reflect baby name trends. I predict an explosion of pet/baby name conflicts, as more and more couples give their favorite names to their dogs, only to wish for those names back when the time comes to name a child.

Which Names Are Most Animal?

Human names may be going to the dogs, but not all human names. (Have you ever heard "These are our dogs, Kenneth and Jeanette"?) The hottest pet names today are what I call the "Guys and Dolls" names in the Baby Name Wizard book. These are the fun-loving old timer names like Max, Charlie, Lucy and Molly. The Guys and Dolls are popular for human babies too, but a slew of them utterly dominate the pet name space. They're cozy and approachable, perfect for a relationship of simple, unconditional love.

Some of the most popular examples for pets are the choices that push to the style extreme. Among these are ultra-feminine and ultra-masculine names: Lola, Daisy, Lulu; Rocky, Hank, Bruno. To me, that suggest that parents have a major yen for that kind of name but worry about giving them to their children. Pets are the perfect outlet for your naming fantasies.

The other big human name style for pets is preppy surnames. Again, though, not all of them. Preferred surnames for pets end in -er (Tucker, Cooper, Piper) or -y (Bailey, Riley, Brody), but NOT the top human ending -n (Grayson, Landon, Ashton). For that, I have no easy explanation, though it intuitively feels right. Any thoughts, baby name nation?

Quiz: Can You Tell the Dog by its Name? (Round 2!)

Feb 23rd 2012

I've had pet names on the brain this week, so it seemed like time to revisit they way we name dog names, breed by breed. Last time, we saw which dog breeds received names like Shasta, Pebbles, Chi-Chi, Gus and Rocky. But what about Colby, Brutus and Gizmo? 

Below you'll find "name clouds" representing the most popular names for five breeds of dog. The bigger the type, the more popular the name. Can you guess which name cloud matches each breed? (And more on what the various styles of names tell us soon!)

Breeds: Corgi, Golden Retriever, Poodle, Saint Bernard, Shih Tzu







Images created with Wordle.

Answers to come tomorrow in comments!

Does a hard-to-pronounce baby name hurt you?

Feb 16th 2012

Last week I suggested that we don't give the written versions of names their due. We call Chloe and Kloee mere alternate versions of the same name, as if the "real" name is what's spoken aloud. Yet in today's world, our written names do much of the heavy lifting of making first impressions and establishing our reputations.

A timely study tries to shed some light on how much influence the pure written name might have. As reported around the world, researchers found a "name-pronunciation effect": that people respond better to names that are easy to pronounce, and that this response has real-world repercussions in terms of life success. And pronounceability, in their measures, is quality of the written name.

How much store should you put in this finding?

Looking at the actual research paper, it's a series of five experiments, most of which can be thought of as initial probes into the topic. The real meat comes in the fifth and final study, the only one that looks at names at large in the real world. The authors recorded the names and positions of 500 lawyers in large American law firms. Taking some care to account for factors like educational background and "Anglo-American vs. foreign" name identity, they found a measurable effect of name pronounceability on attorneys' rank in their firms’ hierarchies.

This is a careful enough study, and an intuitive enough result, to assume the result is accurate. I do have a major reservation about the research, though. It's not about the actual experiments per se, but the way the authors describe their findings. Here's the start of their abstract:

"Names are rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity, or class; they may connote personality characteristics ranging from warmth and cheerfulness to morality. But names also differ in a much more fundamental way: some are simply easier to pronounce than others. Five studies provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names."

Would you ever guess from that description that their study looked almost exclusively at surnames? Surely the gender, class and cheerfulness information they describe is carried primarily by the given name. (At least that’s true in the U.S., where the law firm study was done.)

Yet throughout the paper the authors adopt a "names-is-names" attitude, making no distinction between hereditary family surnames and fashion-sensitive given names. The past research they cite is about first names, the experiments the run are on last names, and their conclusions are simply about "names." Even in the few cases where the experiments might have included full names, they make no mention of the component parts. It's not clear how they would determine their "Anglo-American vs. foreign" categories for names like, say, James Nwokeji or Giovanni Smith.

It seems to me this is taking advantage of the broadness of the English word "name." In a language where distinct words apply to given names and family names, the entire paper would have been different.

There's a world of difference between American given names and surnames, in the way they're assigned, they way they change over time, and the way we all interpret them. There's also ample reason to suspect that a name-pronunciation effect could work quite differently in given names. When it comes to baby names, spelling is a cultural choice fraught with significance.

For instance, the perception of conformity to tradition -- mostly a non-issue in surnames -- is a powerful dimension in given names . Do you think that the phonetically simpler Kloee would give a girl a step up in a legal career over Chloe? Or that clarifying the ambiguous Madeline to Maddalinn would yield more positive responses and higher societal status? And that's just one factor. Spelling of given names can also signal ethnic differences and more. 

Because of the freedom of choice parents have, given names carry more dimensions of information than surnames. That means that a dimension like pronunciation fluency could well be significant in surnames but be swamped by other factors – including other written-only factors – in given names. So when it comes to news you can use for choosing a name for your baby, I'd put this particular worry at the bottom of your list.