What Names Tell Us About...Animals?

Mar 23rd 2011

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?

Justin: Forever Young

Mar 17th 2011

Here's a snapshot of the name Justin in America:

Justin is the name for the really nice, cute boy all the girls in the seventh grade English class have secret crushes on.  The amazing part is that it has managed to retain that image for over 30 years.  (For the prototypical Justin, see the dashing young rat hero in the 1971 children's classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.)  Perennially youthful, but not frivolous.

I wrote those words in early 2004, for publication in the first edition of the Baby Name Wizard book. At that time, one Justin Guarini had just made a splash in American Idol's very first season. Since then, Justin Timberlake has "brought sexy back." Justin Bieber has grown from a young boy in Ontario to a world-conquering teen idol. In other words, the Justin beat goes on.

It's a little uncanny. Other names manage to stay in fashion for decades at stretch, but Justin goes further. While cohorts like Jason and Kyle ease into "dad name" territory, Justin still rules that seventh grade English class. 40 years into its stay on the top-100 names list, it still sounds positively boyish. It's like a teen-dream version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The steady stream of cute-boy singers is surely a big part of this story. Another factor is the lack of prominent Justins in more sedate professions to balance them out. (The first modern Justin in the U.S. Congress was elected only last year.) It also helps that some of the cute-boy Justins like Mr. Guarini have faded from the spotlight before they had a chance to publicly age.

The eternal youth is bound to give way as the leading edge of the Justin surge ages...right? Unless there really is a Justin portrait hidden in an attic somewhere. If there is, it's probably an 8x10 glossy.

Enter the 2010 Baby Name Pool!

Mar 10th 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, start your mental engines! It's time for the 6th Annual Baby Name Pool.

Match wits with hundreds of other name enthusiasts, guessing the top rising and falling names of 2010. If you win, I'll extol your brilliance and grant you a year's worth of worldwide bragging rights! And if your predictions are total clunkers, nobody ever has to know that you entered at all. Good deal, huh?

The rules are simple: list three names that you think rose the fastest in the United States in 2010, and three you think fell. When the U.S. government releases its official name stats in May, I'll tally the results using the Baby Name Wizard Hotness Formula. The top total scorer gets the glory.

So it's simple...but not easy. You might spot a hot new name anywhere, from your neighborhood playground to American Idol to Bollywood. And fast-falling names are even trickier -- quick, what names have you NOT thought about this year?

If you haven't played before, you can read more details and check out the fastest rising and falling names of the previous year to get a sense of how name fashions operate. Then convince your friends and coworkers to enter and compete against you. ( This is an equal-opportunity contest, by the way; we've had male and female winners.)

All entries must be received by April 15. Think of it as a fun antidote to tax filing.

Ready to go? Fill out your ballot now!