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?


By Amy3
March 30, 2011 4:18 PM

@Becky, I like the idea of continuing the trend you have of different initial and ending letters. With that in mind, and factoring in my faves from your list, I like Amos or Miriam.

By Poultrygeist (not verified)
March 30, 2011 4:23 PM

I wonder if the age of those most responsible for pet naming also plays a part. Anecdotally, in my family young folks have chosen descriptive, non-human names or names related to current interests/hobbies, whereas adults have gone for human monikers.

Pets (all cats) named by adults: Max, Katie, Ralph, Randy.
Pets (2 cats, 1 lizard, several hamsters) named by kids: Twister, Cinnamon, Blender, [several character names chosen by James Bond-obsessed tykes].

And as an adult now, I find myself much more drawn to human names for reasons other posters mentioned (the ironic incongruity between non-human creature and human name, personality emergence rather than description, playing with "unusable" names, etc).

I can easily see the two systems overlapping.

By EVie
March 30, 2011 8:06 PM

Becky - My picks for the boys would be Japheth or Gideon. Japheth in particular is a fantastic and underused name, with an easy nickname (Jay) should he ever want something a little more accessible. Of the other names, I would be wary of Naphtali and Shiloh—Naphtali because it will be frequently misheard/misread as Natalie, and Shiloh because it is so strongly associated with Shiloh Jolie-Pitt (and because she is female, well...) Asher is a great name, but a bit trendy for my tastes, and the others are solid, just not my style.

I like all your girls' choices. Adara is much more in line with current trends than the others—very vowelly and feminine. Not sure whether that will be a plus or a minus for you. I'm not personally bothered by it as long as the name itself isn't skyrocketing (which it isn't—it's never been in the top 1000). So Adara is actually my favorite, probably followed by Miriam.

March 30, 2011 8:25 PM

Hi guys, I've been away so have missed heaps of posts!

Re the pet names, I'm very much into not using human names on pets. My pets are my children though, so it has nothing to do with not wanting them to be part of the family. More that I like quirky, interesting, themed names for animals.

My current cats (about 11 years old) are named Mulder and Scully. Even when I named them it was a little ironic, now most people don't even get it :) My alpacas (who are definitely also like children) are named with South American names - Inti and Chimu.
Fish I tend to go a bit more wild and crazy with as we have lots of them and they last at the most 3 or 4 years.

I kind of get bored by common human names on pets. I know so many dog Molly's and Lucy's. The names like Alan and Kevin on pets though do crack me up!

@Becky, welcome back and congratulations. I liked both Miriam and Tirzah for you last time around so think they are both good options. For boys Malachi and Amos are winners in my opinion. I know a little Malachi and he is gorgeous!

March 30, 2011 8:37 PM

@KRC, I am just catching up on the last 10 days posts and was very excited to see your list!! Yes we do have very similar taste :) Here are my comments on your list:

Astrid - You know I totally adore this!
Georgiana - This is also on my long list but I pronounce it Jorj-ee-ahna. I think it verges on too frilly even for me, so hence it's lower down my list.
Rosalind - A name I've always loved but I have an aunt Roslyn so wouldn't use it. I pronounce it Roz-a-lind (more similar to the Rose sound with my accent)
Cecily - I like this and it's a family name (great grandmother) but as she always went by Ces (pron Cess) I have a weird association with it.
Olympia - I love Olympia but it's just not me, so would love it on someone elses child.
Beatrix - This is one of those names I should love based on style but just has never grown on me. I do love the nn Bea though, even though I saw you say that you have friends with little Bea's.
Octavia - I totally adore Octavia and it's on my longer list.
Thea - I have Theadora on my list and really love this but we have a surname that ends with 'th' so I worry it sounds too lispy for me. Great name though!
Esmeralda - the only name on your list that I don't like. It's just a witchy name to me.
Cordelia - Again I adore Cordelia. Re the pronounciation if we use this I think it will be Cor-deel-eah. I do like the Cor-del-eah pronunciation but I don't think people will do it.

So my list (the shortlist so far, still not husband approved)


probably followed by:

I have another 10 odd names I'm really fond of but would probably lean towards as middle names. BTW, I'm 29 weeks and no closer to a name. My husband is not interested in discussing it yet, sigh!

March 30, 2011 11:39 PM

Chimu-Genevieve and Zinnia are not names I've heard you mention before. They seem totally in line with your tastes but I'm curious what made them get added to your middle list. I'm so crushing on Astrid these days that I SOO wish someone would use it.
Astrid Susannah
Juniper Octavia
Cordelia ??
are my fav combos right now.

By Amy3
March 31, 2011 5:38 AM

I keep forgetting to mention that I have a friend with a dog named Kenneth and a cat Juan. There's at least one more cat, and I think her name is Leona. I do find those pretty hilarious, esp Kenneth.

Welcome back, @Chimu! I love that you have alpacas. You have a great list of names, it must be driving you crazy that your husband doesn't want to discuss them. It shouldn't surprise you that I like them quite a lot!

March 31, 2011 8:58 AM

My poor husband is having a hard time with names. He says he only likes Joseph (our son's middle name) or my brothers' names. I'm not keen on naming our son after one of my brothers as I have three brothers and would feel weird that two were left out. But we'll see. Yesterday he did tell me, "I liked the name Francis earlier today, but I don't like it so much now." I laughed--that's the sort of thing that happens to me all the time, but I was surprised that he even spent two seconds thinking about names during the day. Progress!

Becky, how about the name Myra?

By kasey (not verified)
March 31, 2011 5:58 PM

Frustratingly, we've never really been able to name our own pets. :-p

Our cat and dog came from the shelter with names already and we just didn't change them; the dog because I felt it would be confusing/mean and the cat because... I don't know?!

The dog I had all kinds of names I wanted to use so that was a real bummer. She's black and white and I liked the name Orca. I also thought about using the baby names that we didn't use on our daughter, knowing I would never get a chance to use them otherwise (one and done!).

I stopped riding when I got pg., but the horses at the barn had some cool names. My fave was Monty. There was also a Chloe and a Moses. I'm totally blanking on other names now, but there were some good ones.

By Tarmie (not verified)
April 1, 2011 9:27 PM

I've always named my animals "human" names and my mum always named hers more traditionally animal names.
The names I've used over the years include Xander (officially named Alexander), Charlie, Bea (after Bea Arthur of Golden Girls fame), Elsa, Sasha, Shana (got a few years after Sasha died), Tobey, Lusi, Boris, Amy and Basil (Fawlty Towers FTW).
Some of my mum's choices were: Denim, Fawn, Weena, Cougar, Tiger, Gumby, Lippy Linda, Woody, Brindle, Flower, Cher, Mischief and Buddy.

-shrug- Tastes differ. I choose names that seemed to "fit" the animal in question. EG Boris is a brindle Staffordshire Bull Terrier. I named him because he's exactly what I think a "Boris" should be - big, boofy, physically intimidating ... and on the inside is just a massive warm-hearted mushy goo. ^_^

April 3, 2011 10:51 PM

While it's still going to be a couple of years before my hubby and I have any human babies, we've both had plenty of fur babies. I have had 2 dogs, the first being named Chrissy and my current dog named Mitzy. Chrissy just instantly came to mind for some reason when naming the pointer mix pup and she loved it, immediately looked up and wagged her tail. Mitzy (shephard mix) came about after about a day of calling out multiple names both human and nonhuman with Mitzy being the first she answered to, so I like to say that she named herself.

My cats have been Colby (my current kitty, full name being Colby Jack, an orange and white striped tabby named for colby jack cheese obviously), then there was Thermal, my white kitty who was named after the white male kitten from the book 'The Cat Who Came In From The Cold'.

Also, there was Posey and Stormy, both black female cats, mother and daughter. She had two gray tabby kittens as well, whom I named Cherry and Misty. Cherry for her extremely red little nose that stood out so much against her gray fur and a gray tabby that I named Misty because it started off as a Misty, gray day when they were born and by the end of the day it was a stormy day (hence the black kitten's name).

Then lastly was my first pet I was only 4 and I named my kitty Kimberly because it was my favorite name at the time. I have also had parakeets respectfully named: Mickey and Minnie, and Sky and Sunflower.

My husband has had dogs: Achilles and Mac, both goldens. And cats: Gracie, George, Faith, Hope, Peaches, Max, Figaro, and LaNeige (meaning the snow in French, another white kitty)

So, overall I would say that neither of us lean toward either selection of names for pets, it really depends on what fits the animal the best. I would love to name a little male kitty Barthlomew one day though for some odd reason and I have always thought Darby and Triscuit would be perfect names for a male puppy.

By Rockstar Pony (not verified)
April 4, 2011 12:12 AM

I love the idea of dad-names (Kevin, Alan) for pets! My dad (named Allan, heehee) has a penchant of grandpa/grandma names - so far we've had a cat named Clarence and dogs named Hank and Millicent. He once promised to buy me a sheep if I agreed to name it Earl.

As a horseback rider, I wonder why the horse world hasn't made this change as much? A lot of horses do get barn names that are just shortened versions of their show names, but even the horses I know with totally unrelated names are split about 50/50, with half getting human names and half not. It does make finding out famous horses' barn names more interesting, though - there's a few with show names like Master Class Vibrance, and then their barn name is Steve.

By Paula (not verified)
April 5, 2011 1:46 PM

As a child, my first dog (named by my parents) was Stormy. My first cat (named by me, around the time I started first grade and was reading the "Dick and Jane" series at school) was Puff.

As I got older, I tended to go for more human sounding names. Current cat (and only pet) is Mitzi.

By shadelit (not verified)
April 5, 2011 7:37 PM

As someone who grew up always hearing "Oh, I used to have a dog with that name!" upon introducing myself, I have long loathed the practice of giving animals human names. I also had to rule out one of my preferred baby names because it reminded my husband too much of a cat his family owned in his childhood.

My own pets have always been named after known and unique literary characters, ie Renfield, Iago, Miss Marple and Bandersnatch, or artists, ie Magritte, Cezanne and Picasso.

April 6, 2011 12:18 AM

Hello to all! This is my first post but I have been stocking this site for over 3 years. I love baby names and the pet subject has me very interested!

My dog that is 10 years old is named Olivia (Liv or Livi). I laugh because I now have 2 friends, who have chosen this name for their daughters.

My husband and I got a yellow lab as a wedding present. Bill will turn 4 in May.

We have little boys:

Pete (2 1/2 years old)
Nate (1 years old)

Bill would have been up for consideration when we had our son if we had not already used it on our dog.

April 10, 2011 12:31 PM

In my family we have almost always named our pets with 'human' names, we just feel like it is more respectful that way - the only exception was my dear first dog who was named KD first as a nickname and then it kind of stuck (his kennel name was Korasan Gold Dash).
Currently we have
Norton - the labrador
Lucas - the poodle
Mosca - the scottish fold kitty
Samuel - Cockatoo
Jimmy - Galah
Bud - Galah
previously we had:
Kevin: Yabbie
Sophie: ferret
Tesa: Maltese
Bindi: ...dog
Pipper: Rabbit
Benjamin: Rabbit (how cliche I know)
Janis: Cat
Bonnie: Staffy
Westbury: (well it kind of counts) German shepherd
among many others.

April 12, 2011 11:56 AM

Хм… Очень даже ничего

April 19, 2011 12:53 AM

Paula- My dog's name is Mitzy, I love that name for a pet! I just chose to spell it with a y instead of an i but either way, I think its such a cute name for a pet.

By Missy Holland (not verified)
April 26, 2011 3:56 PM

Reading over this article and the comments makes me feel much less guilty about the fact that my future son's likely name 'Alexander' currently belongs to the spaniel sitting at my feet! LOL

(My cat is named Cameo, but don't worry, I wouldn't name a kid that.)

May 8, 2011 4:23 AM

У ceмeй oдних лёт пчeл зa взяткoм интeнcивный и вoзрacтaeт пo мeрe увeличeния eгo cилы, у других зaмeтнo cлaбee. У пeрвых, ecли зaглянуть в гнeздa, coты пoбeлeны и хoрoшo нa­пoлняютcя cвeжим мeдoм, у втoрых кoнтуры этoй кaртины eдвa oбoзнaчaютcя. Этo рaзличиe

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