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?

Comments

51
By Eirian (not verified)
March 24, 2011 5:55 PM

I like human names on pets because a) "pet" names are usually too common, b) it gives me an opportunity to use a name I can't use on a kid for whatever reason and c) I don't want to feel stupid when calling my dog out loud, which would happen with a name like Spot. That's my personal hang-up, though.

My current dog is named Tobías. Before him we had another dog named Clarissa.

52
By Ellen Gary (not verified)
March 24, 2011 9:43 PM

Haha, this is awesome! I am 22 and I definitely name pets like I'm practicing to name future babies. I got a puppy a few months ago. We named him Auggie. When I was growing up, the family dog's name was Jack. I had a few fish over the summer too.. their names were Magnolia, Esmeralda, and Josephine.

53
March 25, 2011 1:09 AM

My childhood pets included a hamster named Alexander, and goldfish named after 2 of the 3 wise men (not Kasper/Jasper, though - glad someone else picked that up!). My family then went on to assign ancient Greek names to all of their cats, which works surprisingly well.

In our own pets then kids then another pet household:
Cats: A1istair, Made1eine, Prisci11a, H0rati0. Kids: J0ly0n, and hopefully a Rup3rt on the way.

Our female cats have been named due to physical attributes, just a step further removed, so they end up being less obvious than Spot or Patches.

Made1eine was named after a trip to France as she was very small and sort of sweet like the pastry.

Prisci11a after Ms Presley for her ridiculous masses of teased black hair, enormously goobery super-big eyes... plus the extremes of flat-facedness of Persians rather resemble the extremes of plastic surgery Ms Presley underwent in more recent years. I am really proud of that name, since it works perfectly for appearance and personality *AND* is a name I like.

Our male cat names are ones we loved that were declared by one or more parties as Not Useable On A Child. (I guess I should clarify I'm definitely in the "owner" and not "pet parent" category, and I have never thought of our pets as children.) I think this is because generally our boy lists have always been way longer than our girl lists... but probably also because boy names seem generally more conservative in terms of what's considered acceptable and masculine.

54
By Arbolton (not verified)
March 25, 2011 8:26 AM

I checked this blog today because I am trying to name a new dog--had no idea Laura had posted on pet names! I need help naming my new brown terrier. He is scruffy, extremely shy, and is full grown at 11 lbs. I love human names and so far my favorites are Nicholas, Wolfgang, and Otto. Any suggestions? Interestingly, my friends have discouraged all human names!

55
March 25, 2011 8:56 AM

ARbolton-I would pick Wolfgang because it seems the most incongruous to a shy, small dog than the others.

EVie-I used to have goldfish in college who despite me giving them human names would die every two weeks or so. (I'm not very good with fish-luckily have managed better with the children.) Anyway, since I always had 2 of them I would name them after famous pairs. Somehow they were always boys. Fred + Barney, Tom + Jerry,etc.

sarahjane-Liked your story.

56
By knp
March 25, 2011 12:23 PM

I totally went for people names we wouldn't use on a person, but love to name our animals.

First, there was Mason, the guinea pig (he was named as a bit of revenge on my mom, who the day before we got him told us that we should name a child Mason, since all Mason's she'd met were nice men and good looking to boot) :)

Then, we had a few birds: Sarah (I had recently read a historical fiction about Abraham's Sarah and was in love with the character), George (so we could ask "where did he go, george?") and I can't remember the last name, but I think it was Charlotte. We rarely called them by their names, and my husband could never remember their names.

Then, we got Mina, our puppy. This was a name I fell in love with from a book (Mina is the heroine--if you can use that word-- in the book Dracula). My husband said he liked the name, but could not use Wilhelmina for a child's name. To this day, people think we say Nina until we give them the Wilhelmina connection. (Plus, Wilhelmina was a queen of the Netherlands and I am proud of my dutch heritage) We sometimes get strange comments as to why you would name such a sweet thing Mean-a, because she isn't mean, until they learn the connection.

My experience with Mina has taught me something-- people will quickly accept a weird name if you have a explanation (family name, beloved fictional/literary charater etc).
To carry that idea further, recently heard of a little girl called Ruth Raymond-- the mn after the dorm the parents met at. Super weird, until you know why.

57
March 25, 2011 1:16 PM

Becky -- Congrats! I'd like to suggest my sister's Hebrew name, Malka. I always thought that Mally (or Molly) made a very sweet nickname.

As for pets, we have a Great Pyrenees named Tess and two cats, Jefferson Davis and Delta. Sadly, Magnolia passed away a couple of years ago.

Finally, a quick funny story: I worked as a vet tech in high school and into college and we had a client whose name was Fred and he called his dog Manfred. I said to him one day, "Aren't YOU the man-Fred?" He didn't think it was funny.

58
By knp
March 25, 2011 1:41 PM

Ooooh, cool name day: character on Fairly Legal (TV show) a little Veronica has the nn Nica (Nee-kah). :)

And a name from Private Practice-- I missed the role (author, actor) but cool name: Tequan.

(I'm working from home with the TV on... it isn't that productive, but relaxing!)

59
By Amy3
March 25, 2011 2:06 PM

@zoerhenne, I had two goldfish--Mutt and Jeff. :)

60
March 25, 2011 3:11 PM

When my sister and I were young we had two goldfish that we named after ourselves (very creative, I know). We also had a canary named Zuko after John Travolta's character in Grease. The few people I know who have pets gave them interesting human names that really seem to suit them: a cat named Sabrina, a golden retriever named Hailey, a Samoyed named Freya, and a Shih Tzu named Armani (as in Giorgio).

61
By Guest here (not verified)
March 25, 2011 4:51 PM

What about animals in zoos? Would Knut have been as famous if he hadn't been given a human name?

62
March 25, 2011 5:47 PM

I know a tiny, scruffy dog named Wolfgang, nicknamed Wolfie. That works really well, and I vote for that, though your other options are excellent as well. Otto is just a spectacular name in general.

63
By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
March 25, 2011 7:07 PM

@ARbolton - I'd go with Wolfgang! It's one of those names I love but can't imagine using on a child. Otto would work great, too.

We don't have pets, but since going through the naming process of my eldest, I'm keen to have a cat named Mordecai one day. I love, love, love that name, but not being Jewish or have any ties to the culture or religion, I feel like I just couldn't name a baby Mordecai.

64
March 25, 2011 7:48 PM

Hi Becky,

Congratulations! I just popped in to endorse my own Hebrew name "Tirzah." It has a great meaning and a lot of Biblical history. I pronounce it "TEER-zah," although I understand that Israelis pronounce it "TEERT-tzah."

I helped pick my nephew's name "Asher." Although it's more popular in our circles than we had presumed, it's still a great name with a good meaning. Asher gets a nice blessing in the Bible too.

Good luck!

65
By Beth the original (not verified)
March 25, 2011 7:54 PM

I actually think Spot and Rover and Fido are hilariously retro names for dogs. It's impossible to use them without irony nowadays.

Somehow cat names don't feel amusingly anachronistic: Fluffy, Snowball, and Kitty just feel boring.

66
By Amy3
March 25, 2011 8:00 PM

@ARbolton, I vote for Otto. Great name and a palindrome!

@Beth the original, my daughter got the NintenDogs game and called the dog, Fido, she met on "walks" Feedo. I'd love to use that, but everyone would naturally assume it was Fyedo.

67
March 25, 2011 10:39 PM

I have three large dogs named Buster, Max, and Bo (short for Bogart). We treat them genuinely like members of the family because they've been with us for so long. The dogs that I had as a child were named Ogre, Jake, and Tucker. Ogre was named for his eating habits, not his personality (though having a lab/pitbull named Ogre is intimidating in hindsight). Jake was a lab, and Tucker a mini-poodle/terrier. Basically, I've never had a dog (Ogie excepted) that did not have a human name.

My cat was named Kitty-Kitty. Because I was a year old when we got her and that's all I could think of. So I guess she doesn't count. I would probably come up with something way better and particular today.

Our chickens, however, have unconventional, non-human names, for the most part. Jailbird, Red, Houdini, Snoop, Boombox, and Goldie (named for her color, formerly Einstein). We named them so because we had the idea initially that we might butcher them. That's no longer the case, but because it's necessary not to get too emotionally attached to animals that a) die easily b) could be slaughtered c) aren't smart enough to show affection. So we avoid human names for our chickens. Same with our finches, which we (ironically) named after snack food: Snickers, Twix, Bubblegum, Dorito, Almond Joy, Baby Ruth, Nutty-Butty (being actually two identical zebra finches that we could not tell apart, hence referred to as one instead of as individuals).

I believe that refers somehwere to Laura's parrot-chicken distinction?

68
By Guest Rachel (not verified)
March 26, 2011 2:17 AM

I have some friends who have an extended family tradition of naming pets after exclamations. The result is often a "formal" name which is not so human and a nn that could be. For example, they have a dog named Tally Ho who they mostly call Tally. Tally Ho has various cousins named Jeepers Creepers (Jeepers), Good Golly Miss Molly (Molly), Jeez Louise (Louise, obviously), Gee Willikers (Willie), Great Scott (Scott, duh). I think it's a super cute way to name a pet.

69
March 26, 2011 10:07 AM

Yes what is it with naming black labs Molly?

70
March 26, 2011 10:44 AM

I never thought that much about it, but I guess I'm in the human-name-for-animal camp:
Oliver, Joey, Crispin, Jasmine, Newton, Luna. Even as a kid I named our parakeet Hercules, because I liked the cartoon Hercules and Brutus.

I don't know if I'd use any of those names on my kids, though. Newton was named for Sir Isaac Newton - if I were to name a kid after that personage, I'd probably go with Isaac instead.

71
By KVA (not verified)
March 26, 2011 12:22 PM

I wanted to name my dog Spot or Zuzu, but it was impossible to find a true "dog name" that the rest of my family didn't hate. I should've just gone with my own style, but I went for peace so my house dog's name is Hannah.

That said, my fiance lives in rural Peru, where human names are very popular for working dogs. His family's older shepherd (who actually herds sheep) is called Peter or Pedro (used interchangeably, neither is the "official" name), and their younger shepherd is Batista.

It seems like non-working dogs in his town are more likely to have non-human names, like Chochi and Pelusa. Meanwhile, cats often aren't given any name -- and all cats are expected to scare off mice and rats, which are everywhere.

72
By KVA (not verified)
March 26, 2011 12:28 PM

By the way, Chochi = "Sweetheart"; Pelusa = "Hairy"

73
By alr (not verified)
March 26, 2011 5:21 PM

Oooooh, I love the suggestion of Tirzah for Becky. :) Might tie with Miriam for my favorite - should the kiddo be a girl.

74
By moll
March 27, 2011 8:53 AM

Molly has been the #1-3 name for female dogs for coming up on 20 years now, and the worst is that people always tell me, in astonished tones, that "OhmyGOD my DOG is named Molly!". First of all, that isn't really a compliment, and secondly, your dog name is super common, so I'm not exactly awed at the coincidence of us both being named Molly.
I now have nephews named Ch@rley, H3nry, J@ck, and M@x (among others), so they'll understand the dog name thing someday...

My pets are H@rper and M@bel - M@bel being a human name I like but don't feel bad forfeiting on a pet, and H@rper before the recent H@rper boom, after H@rper Lee (I'm a law student, so).

75
By knp
March 27, 2011 5:02 PM

In an interesting connection to this topic: I just read the book "Nose Down, Eyes Up" which is about a man and his relationship with his dogs (he can understand what they say, which was th entertaining part). The main dog's name was Jimmy, and he had a very familial relationship with his owner. The other 3 dogs owned by the main (human) character had non-human names, Dink, Cheney (ok this one is more human too), Fruity and definitely a more distant relationship to the human owner, but grew threw the book.

Also interesting, a woman in the novel was Eden (and her character was temptation itself, like the apple!)

76
By Guest Robin (not verified)
March 27, 2011 7:53 PM

We had the dog first and named him Guy, partly on the one-syllable name principle, and partly because my husband kept saying "Hey little guy" to his new puppy. I kind of didn't think about it, until we had our first baby, and then realized what a great name it was and we used it on the dog. Oh well.

77
By Rook (not verified)
March 27, 2011 10:44 PM

For the most part, we've used human names for our pets over the years, but purposefully ones that are out of fashion for people -- for instance, my most recent three cat names were Jethro, Clyde, and Roger. We currently have three animals, Jali, Nessa (short for Clytemnestra), and Bernard.

Our reasoning is that this makes them "human" enough to be part of the family, but different enough from actual people that it's not too similar. Don't want to mix up the dogs and the kids!

Side note: our car's name is Dorothy.

78
By Rook (not verified)
March 27, 2011 10:46 PM

Yes, that's another good point I didn't think of. Our system also makes sure we don't "waste the good names" on pets :)

79
March 28, 2011 11:05 AM

My first pet was a cockatiel. I was 7 and named her after a horse I'd met the same year - Tickle. Next was a male cockatiels, Chewy, who came with his name. He and Tickle had 4 chicks over the course of 2 years - Floyd, after the hurricane he hatched during, Marshmellow who was renamed Samantha by her new owners, and Maggie and Dida, after friends. I also fostered a male cockatiel for about a year who I named Montgomery during a phase where I liked names on the long, stuffy side.

I think I've mentioned this here before, but my adopted papillon (dog) was named Angel by the previous owner, but that name is very NMS for human or pet. I chose Regina Faye, nn Reggie for my dog because I liked the frilly official name vs. tomboyish nn, and Regina is a nod to a "typical" dog name, Rex.

80
March 28, 2011 5:19 PM

I love dreaming up names for pets - always wanted one, my mom finally gave in and let me get a cat when I was 14.

I like walking on that line between 'people name' and 'object name.' I really don't like it when dogs are named popular people names, like Sam or Lucy. But I could see @ilikemints' point where just naming an animal after his coat is kind of unimaginative. I'm all for using literary names you (and anyone else) would unlikely use on a child, e.g. Ford Prefect, Zaphod, Pippi, etc.

My family has had:
Sox (dog) - named 10 yrs before I was born because of her white paw/foot area
Biscuit and Smokey (cats) - Smokey because he was gray. No idea on Biscuit... I remember puzzling that one out though at the ripe age of 5, "She doesn't look like a biscuit. Her fur isn't the color of a biscuit. Does she like biscuits??? Mooooom, can I have a biscuit to give Biscuit?!?!?!"
Sugar (dog) - I named her because of her fur (I was 8) (She had a sister who was brown that our friend named Cinnamon)
Daria - The cat my mother gave in to getting. Daria was a huge show at that time, and I don't remember who the boy I liked was, but some letter combination worked out part of his name :P Teenagers!

My dream now is to get two West Highland White Terriers and name them Clover (even though I know Ireland =/= Scotland; t's just pretty) and Lambda (because it's kind of like lamb, and Westies are white, but also because I'm a nerd and lambda is the symbol for wavelength; and white holds a special place in the visible spectrum). They're name-y names I feel, without infringing on 'people' territory.

81
By Rhodolady (not verified)
March 28, 2011 8:58 PM

Off topic but an interesting article:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/the-essay/my-name-is-amen-you-heard-right/article1959696

Sorry, I thought this would show as a live link but you may have to swipe the url and copy it.

Ok maybe it will work.

82
By AlsoZR (not verified)
March 28, 2011 10:26 PM

Reposting to see if this link works any better. If not what I did was scroll down to bottom on left side under the heading of Life. Then click on that ans search for the article.
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/the-essay/my-name-is-amen-you-heard-right/article1959606/

83
By Penny in Australia (not verified)
March 29, 2011 2:49 AM

Here’s an, um, interesting story on name changing. I read about this family in a magazine, but have found an online version here:

http://sunshine-coast.finda.com.au/stories/2011/01/25/love-will-leave-the-sunshine-coast-on-valentines/

(also mentioned in the magazine article [but not online] is that Shumbi (the mother)’s original name was Karen, and Karen’s mother’s maiden name was Real, hence she added that new name).

84
By Mombear (not verified)
March 29, 2011 3:00 AM

Our dogs through the years were named: Rollo, Flash, Bella, Blue, and Sheba.

Our cats: Imp, Quark, Nebula, Knightley, Emma, and Badger.

85
March 29, 2011 12:48 PM

@Becky, I haven't read every comment so these may have been suggested already, but I wanted to suggest Miriam, Esther, and Leah for little one! I'm afraid I don't have any boy suggestions...

86
March 29, 2011 1:28 PM

I have two big "pet peeves" with pet names. 1) Names like Fluffy, Tiger, Bandit, Simba, or Snowball, that are just done to death and meaningless. 2) Naming an animal after another animal. It just drives me nuts to meet a dog named Gator or a cat named Bear. It's like naming your son Daughter or something.

I think what signifies a "good" pet name to me is any name that acknowledges that the animal has a personality. Modern-human names, dated-or-strange-but-human names, even non-human names like Tango or Sailor, can all work--as long as it has some amount of dignity and substance. Your pet may not be your child--that may be taking things a little far--but he is a member of your family, or at the very least a beloved friend. He should be named accordingly.

87
March 29, 2011 1:46 PM

Congratulations, Becky!

We named our (now 20-month-old) daughters Miriam and Elisha. Yes, I know that Elisha is biblically a boy's name. But in the U.S. it is used for either -- think actress Elisha Cuthbert. Miriam, especially, has gotten a lot of compliments for being classic but not too old-fashioned. And, actually, "Miriam Elisha" has a nice ring to it.

88
By Snowball (not verified)
March 29, 2011 1:52 PM

I let my kids name the cat we got them for Christmas.They liked Snowball. We also call her Snowy, Snow and Snowbaby. I think it's cute.

89
By hyz nli (not verified)
March 29, 2011 2:30 PM

Aww, now, I kinda like animals named for other animals. Dogs named Bear or Moose are perhaps overdone, but you could get more creative than that. I used to ride ponies named Foxy and Cricket, and I thought those were rather charming. But then, I don't think those names conflict with LibbyLibrarian's latter point, that animals are beloved friends and should be named as such. As a young teenager I liked the idea of naming kids Raven, Wolf, Colt, etc., so if it's good enough for kids, I guess it's good enough for pets. :)

90
March 29, 2011 3:10 PM

You may remember a few months ago, I asked for opinions on the name August and getting my husband to agree to it over Augustus. He thought August was unisex. You all had some great advice, though he wasn't keen on listening. Only after doing some research on his own did he come around. I'm pleased to tell you that our little Gus, full name August Gregory, is now five weeks old. Thanks for the input!

91
By Amy3
March 29, 2011 4:14 PM

@nikki, congratulations! August is very distinguished, and I love the nn Gus. (The only August I know of irl goes by Augie, which I'm not fond of.)

92
By hyz nli (not verified)
March 29, 2011 4:54 PM

Congratulations, Nikki! August is one of my very favorite names, and August Gregory is a truly handsome combination!

93
March 29, 2011 8:20 PM

nikki-Congrats! August Gregory is lovely. I'm a big fan of Gregory so this is going on my fantasy list.

94
By knp
March 29, 2011 8:55 PM

With the pet named after another animal-- I know a cat named Mouse. it is hilarious. :) Not all individual animals have much dignity. hehe

Congrats Nikki!

95
By ozy
March 29, 2011 11:44 PM

I am in the camp of naming pets creative human names that may be too far outside the comfort zone for a future baby. When we got our youngest cat I agonized over her name. I was hoping for a boy - Silas. I made the pitch to my husband to tweak it a little to Xyl@h (pronounced SIGH-la). We got a lot of negative reactions from other people so were torn between that and our next choice name. In the end I think we were bold enough to go with the name that no one else liked because it would only be used on a pet, within the family. 3 years later we adore our Xyl@h and love her name now more than ever - I am so happy we didn't give in.

In a similar vein, I am holding on to Diell0 as a future dog name that I love but have gotten a negative response on.

96
By Charly (not verified)
March 30, 2011 4:53 AM

My fiancé's cell phone is named Edvard, after Edvard Khil, the "trololo" guy. This is what he's called - we use the masculine pronoun.

Sometimes we call my BlackBerry Blackerby after a former boss of mine.

Both of us hate pets - but I do love naming story characters!

97
By Sharalyn (not verified)
March 30, 2011 10:54 AM

Growing up in a family that used "S" for the first initial for our first names, the trend continued with the pets...
Spunky
Sassafrass
Sylvester
Sandi
Sweety
Sugar
Shadow
Strawberry
Snugglebunny
Shoely
Sucktoria (plecostomus - that was a fitting name)
Smidgeon
Smudgekin
Samantha (Sammi)
Shelby
Psunami
Sunshine's Oreo
etc.

I broke the trend when I was in High School with hamsters Yogi and Boo Boo. Then my hubby and I decided to go with Shakespearean names for our critters (all cats)
Hamlet
Ophelia
Phebe
and Puck

98
By Amy3
March 30, 2011 1:32 PM

This may be only tangentially related, but last night my 9-yr-old daughter created a new character for "Arthur," a girl dog named Dexter. It fits into human-names-for-animals and boy-names-for-girls.

99
March 30, 2011 2:33 PM

Hey guys! So between having three kids and morning sickness it’s been hard for me to check back in here, but I’ve read through your comments and I’m really so glad to be back! You guys have given so many great suggestions and thanks for all the kind words as well :)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following names, some of which have been floating around in my head others I added to the list thanks to you guys. It's an eclectic mix...

Boys:
Gideon
Malachi
Asher
Ezra
Amos
Naphtali
Asa
Shiloh
Japheth

Girls:
Shoshanna
Miriam
Adara
Devorah

As you can see I’m kind of lacking in the girls name department. Suggestions are always welcome as well!

100
March 30, 2011 2:59 PM

Becky-To go with the others (Judah Elias, Levi Samuel and Ruth Tziporah) I would suggest these combos:
Gideon Malachi
Malachi Asher

Miriam Devorah
any of those as first names paired with others would be among my picks as well.