Today I’m thinking about names. As a result, I have made up a name for this blog post that is a squishing-together (‘combination’ probably would have worked, but clearly I’m feeling simple today) of ‘zoo’ (animal) and ‘onomastics’ – the study of names.
I was inspired to write this by a jolt to the memory by Twitter, of all things. This story might seem odd, but it comes around to a point. A friend of mine informed me that a favourite boyband of old (well, mid-90s) had reformed for a TV programme. I was thus inspired to follow them on Twitter (something I really haven’t got the hang of as much as I probably should). Their reappearance in my consciousness led me to thinking of the extent of my youthful fandom and also made me think about my old cat, Jimmy.
You might be thinking that Jimmy is an odd name for a cat (although I’ve heard weirder). You might also be wondering why thinking about boybands made me think about cats. Well, the truth is, Jimmy was named after a member of said boyband. I can hear you laughing from here; I’m OK with it. I was 12.
Why did I name a pink tabby after a pop star? It was hardly flattering for either party. Fortunately, neither was ever in a position to appreciate the implications of this dubious honour (though thanks to Twitter, that’s now changed…) It was often joked, nevertheless, that Jim the Cat – who sadly died in 2008 – acted in a particularly macho fashion, all whipping tail and narrowed eyes, to overcome his multiple handicaps to masculinity: no balls, boyband namesake and to top it all off, distinctly pink fur.
What is it that influences our choice of personal names for pets and other animals? Celebrity worship aside, it has been suggested that the growing trend for allocating dogs and cats names that have traditionally been reserved for humans means we increasingly view pets as valued or equal family members. This is particularly interesting because at the same time, at least in ‘Western’ cultures, there is an observable trend towards more unusual names for human children.
One obvious influence is appearance, especially, I think, for children. I named my first pet, a rabbit, Blacky; possibly the world’s most unoriginal name, as well as being politically dubious (one step short of the name of the dog in Dambusters… that’s dropped off the top ten list). I had a toy Koala that I named Koaly and a toy parrot named Beaky. I don’t think I’m alone in my ‘add a y’ technique: Sooty, Smokey, Fluffy, Snowy, Wolfie… any of those sound familiar?
It has been suggested that personality might play a role, but if you are naming a young animal, much like naming a young human, you can’t really surmise much about personality from a sleepy, whiny bundle of warm.
I’m being very mammal-centric here, though… what about the less fluffy amongst our animal friends? Although not as widely studied as cats and dogs,a quick browse for gecko and lizard names highlighted things like Rex, Godzilla (yep), Lizzie (see what you did there), Spikes and Rango… so a couple more nods to popular culture. Indeed, it is reassuring to know that I was not alone in my culturally influenced choice; according to this article, Bella has topped the list of female puppy names ever since Twilight was released. I will leave you to reach your own conclusions as to why Bella but neither Edward nor Jacob has hit the top ten list. Worth noting, thought, that it has the coveted ‘vowel-ending’ that makes calling the name easier…
A lighthearted post today, but before I go, a couple of anthrozoological bits and pieces I’ve thought about as a result of this topic. Firstly – and I might look into this further at some point – I am interested in the level of interaction we need to have with a nonhuman to decide that it is worthy of a personal name. I think it is probably key that the object of our naming demonstrates a certain level of individuality; without much thought, I named all of my demodex Dexter in the recognition that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, even under a microscope. I don’t know much about the psychology of names and it’s too late at night to start reading up on it now, but I would suspect that our penchant for labelling things falls under a similar scope as our need to categorise.
Secondly – and finally – from a less anthropocentric (human-centred) point of view, do other animals have names for one another? As mentioned before, our capacity and application for language is one of our most notable features. Yet just because there is no direct comparison in the nonhuman world, this doesn’t mean other species don’t have individual labels for one another. In fact, solely in terms of auditory communication, as I mentioned in a previous post, dolphins are thought to have unique identifying whistles comparable to names. Similar findings exist in parrots and also crows, elephants and certain primates; all social animals who, like us, may benefit from being able to recognise who is who, who is friend and who is foe.
As I’ve given so much away about my own (terrible, apparently) naming principles, I think you should share too – please leave any anecdotes in the comments below, or just fill in my little poll!
As for The Masked Bandits – their occupation as thieving little hobbitses means their identities must, for now, remain undisclosed. Sorry.