Choosing the right name for Fido is a serious business. It requires thought, sensitivity and forward planning. What seems like a cute name today may be cringe-worthy tomorrow. A wrong choice could prove not only embarrassing for you but cruel to your pet when you think about it. You don’t want to give your Mastiff a baby name even if he is an oversized lamb.
The same principle applies to humans. I once knew a fellow who – we were assured – was exceptionally cuddlesome as a baby, as most babies are, with some exceptions that we need not go into. His parents were so enchanted that they immediately called him Winkydoo, later shortened to Winky. Winky survived that period of his childhood in which his cuteness remained intact, but middle school was a trial. Obviously, a boy with a name like that would be a sitting target on the playground.
The name was retained even after he grew big and surly, his voice deepened, acne broke out and he started to play rugby, a really rough game where nobody actually knows all the rules. Every time he was tackled or fumbled the ball, fans of opposing teams would call out Winky Dinky! Frankly, it was embarrassing for his team-mates and he became even surlier.
I sometimes wonder if he is nicer to know these days. If he isn’t I believe you can blame his parents for choosing that ridiculous name.
It is the same with dogs. You are tempted to name your little floppy-eared fuzzball with oversized feet and sweet puppy breath Snookums! Don’t do that. In a matter of months, Snookums will probably weigh 65 pounds; shortly after that, he will be really sturdy and muscular – and nothing like what a Snookums should be. Obviously, he won’t get embarrassed like Winky did but in a public space people will look at you with a grimace when you call him. “Snookums, come Snookums!” Oy!
Pet names should be short, dignified, and distinctive. They should have no more than two syllables – three at a pinch – and they are easier to shout out when they end with a vowel, preferably an “ee” sound. You may like the name Randall, but Randy is a lot easier to yell. Similarly, Monty is a lot more comfortable to call out than Montserrat which may seem like a spiffy name for your Poodle or your Borzoi but actually it isn’t. Try it out for yourself. Go outside and shout Randy and Monty – and then shout Randall and Montserrat and you will see what I am getting at.
I knew a person once who was a Camelot fan and named his dogs – a male and a female – Lancelot and Guinevere. Try calling them to dinner! I bet they evolved into Lancy and Ginny. I hope he learned his lesson by the time he watched Game of Thrones. Some spectacular names there!
Don’t hesitate to change the name of a shelter dog or cat who enters your life already equipped with a name. Maybe you want your new pet to have a fresh start, including a different moniker. But it may be less confusing for him or her if the new name is fairly similar to the name they know. For instance, if you don’t like Billy, you could change it to Bailey. Nice name Bailey – but there are an awful lot of them around. If you yell Bailey quite a few of them may arrive to see what you want. Bailey has been on the top 10 list of popular names for dogs for some years now. You can check it out on the Internet.
A name has to feel right – right for the dog and right for you. One of my earliest memories of youthful rebellion came when, as young children, my brother and I were presented with the very first dog of our own. My dad was a municipal health official in a large city. One of the issues they dealt with was rodent control in underprivileged areas. They tried different things to counter infectious diseases, including the use of fox terriers for catching rats and mice – just as the Brits used Yorkshire terriers in vermin-infested factories and coal mines during the 19th Century Industrial Revolution. Those little snookums dogs were real killers with attitude and tiny but ferocious fangs. The rats stood little chance.
My dad came home one night with a fox terrier pup under his arm and a face-wide grin. There were more pups in the kennels at his health department than they could deploy – so he bought one that had shown no interest at all in a career as a hunter. He handed us this beautiful little black-white-and-tan guy and said: “His name is Spotty and he is yours.”
I have never forgotten the thrill of that moment. I thanked my father and told him that the dog’s name was not Spotty, because it was too much like nothing. A better name would be revealed in due course, I promised. I did not want to bewilder our new best friend so I chose the name Sport which was similar to what he knew. Everybody including my brother said that was okay – but they continued to call him Spotty anyway and that was his name to the end. I have always regretted my failure with that.
The most popular puppy names in America this year are: Charlie, Cooper, Luna, Bella, Buddy, Max, Daisy, Bailey, Milo and Sadie. The list hasn’t changed much over the past few years but you may have noticed a growing trend in chichi areas like Marin to use ethnic names that are often engagingly different and imaginative. When you casually mention over your dry martini that you have a new pooch, a foreign name can sound very sophisticated. But you may have to be careful when dipping into other people’s cultures, depending on where you live.
In an African country where I once worked, there was a big brouhaha when a local paper mentioned that somebody in the news had a Labrador Retriever named Gatsha – which happened to be the first name of a big shot politician. Some people saw it as an insult even though the dog dog owner said that was never intended and Gatsha himself said that he was not unhappy about it. The incident made it clear that not everybody shares the adoration we all feel for dogs. Different attitudes should be respected.
Still, ethnic names can be very appealing. If you are interested in going the international route and impressing everybody, here are some common names and their loosely translated meanings from one of the loveliest of languages – Zulu:
Girls – Nandi (sweet), Liyana (rain) Shani (crimson, marvel), Lindiwe (waited for), Ayanda (added). Boys – Bongani (thankful), Jabulani (rejoice), Mandla (strength), Meka (nice eyes).
The Xhosa language (Nelson Mandela’s boyhood language – as an adult he was multilingual) has some wonderful names too, many of them unisex: Anathi (a present), Lulama (softly spoken), Cebisa (usually a girl’s name – give advice), Zenzeli (responsibility).
Every language has its charming names for the young. Here for example, are some from Laos: Sunya (promise), Akela (noble), Inoke (devoted). It’s easy to find nice foreign language names. Just ask Google: What are popular children’s names in [name of country]?
All of these names would be okay for dogs. But I have to confess that my favorite name is one that adorned a lovable Pit Bull at Marin Humane. With its four syllables it was too long and it was not comfortable to call out when you wanted the guy’s attention. But it summed up his spirit, his character and that sweet, naughty face – Huckleberry.