In the latest (March 2012, 60:1) issue of Names (the journal of the American Name Society), an article by Stanley Brandes:

Dear Rin Tin Tin: An Analysis of William Safire’s Dog-Naming Survey from 1985

The bottom line: dog names have been becoming more human.

The abstract:

This paper contributes to the study of how and why we bestow particular types of names upon companion animals, specifically dogs. The research is based on a cache of letters written in 1985 in response to a request from New York Times columnist, William Safire. Although the survey is in no sense scientific, it nonetheless taps trends in dog naming that have become steadily more prominent to the present day. Dog names as well as the criteria by which they are selected reflect central aspects of the relationship between pet owners and their canine companions. The letters reveal a growing preference for people names for dogs, which accords with the increasing treatment of companion animals as human. Dog nicknaming is common, particularly for those pedigree canines registered with the American Kennel Club. Dog naming provides pet owners a creative outlet, and a way to reinforce and communicate publicly a particular self-image.

Safire saw a trend towards the humanization of dogs; Brandes supplies several lines of evidence. For example:

As additional evidence in support of Safire’s hypothesis, a recent analysis of pet cemetery gravestone inscriptions reveals a distinct trend towards the application of human names to companion animals. Founded in 1896, the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, located north of New York City, is generally considered to be the oldest pet cemetery in the world. The inscriptions found on gravestones vary enormously from one generation to the next. Before World War II, dogs were called Laddie, Rex, Rags, Boogles, Trixie, Snap, Jaba, and similar names that are entirely uncharacteristic of human beings. Even through the 1980s, at least at Hartsdale, pet names — for instance, Champ, Happy, Rusty, and Spaghetti — were unlike those that parents would give a child. Over the past two or three decades, naming patterns as registered on gravestones have changed radically. It is now very common to encounter inscriptions to dogs named Ronnie, Rebecca, Jasper, Marcello, Oliver, Fred, and Timothy.

My childhood dog had a traditional canine name: Spot, nicknamed Spotty. My dog in the 60s and 70s had a nontraditional, but very much canine, name: Shvani (Sanskrit for ‘female dog’, a feminine counterpart to shun, cognate with the can- root of Latin). More recently, Jacques and I cared for a while for a dog named Wiener (a dachshund, of course) — another doggy name. But I’m old school.



8 Responses to “Dog-naming”

  1. Drew Smith Says:

    “Rex” and “Trixie” are “entirely uncharacteristic of human beings”? I must have imagined the existence of actor Rex Harrison, evangelist Rex Humbard, and film critic Rex Reed, and I must have imagined the existence of the character Trixie Norton (I could have named several real-life Trixies). As for whether “Happy” and “Rusty” are “unlike those that parents would give a child”, how does one account for Happy Rockefeller or Rusty Hamer?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I too worried about the classification of the names.

      “Rex” is a complicated case, since the Latin noun has been used separately in human and canine naming. (Mother of a Japanese friend of mine who was dating someone named Rex: “Why does your boyfriend have a dog’s name?”)

  2. Sissy Says:

    My childhood dog was named Oka, whence she came, and specifically after the Oka Crisis, during which she was born. We lived in kamloops, BC, and since I was a fan of word play even at 9, I insisted we name her Oka Noggin (the town and it’s environs were in the Okanogan Valley).

    In the late 90s I lived in a punk house where we had three dogs, independently named long before, called Jah, Random, and Fate. I must admit a preference for Random.

    More relevantly, most of the dogs (and pets generally) that my friends have are either given a wordplay name, or are named after specific people. Without having the foggiest how to research it, was the trend in dog names about giving dogs human names, or a trend in naming dogs after humans? The stereotypical dog name seems to stem from a characteristic of the appearance of the dog (spot, rusty, patches), and the trend towards naming after real or fictitious humans is describing characteristics of the personality (or more likely, the desired characteristics).
    Wait, is this going to turn into a battle between the prescriptivist and descriptivist dog namers?

  3. Janne Bondi Johannessen Says:

    In Norway, the old type dog names, based on Norwegian words, are a thing of the past. Nowadays, English words (not just names) are used instead. Three different neighbours have given these names to their dogs: Scott, Buddy and Brownie (the latter even pronounced with an English approximant r, not the usual East Norwegian tap).

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Bob Moore on Google+, channeling T.S. Eliot:

    “The Naming of Dogs is a difficult matter;
    It isn’t just one of your holiday games …”

  5. Jan Freeman Says:

    Your Shvani (“female dog”) prompts me to confess that at 10, I gave my new puppy the (apparently related) name Chien, which was promptly normalized to Chenny. (Not the effect I was going for, but we were in rural Ohio, after all. And I was no better than my fellow hayseeds at pronouncing “chien.”) She bore it cheerfully for years, well past the point where I was embarrassed when I had to explain it.

  6. H. S. Gudnason Says:

    My in-laws, when younger, applied names that they had selected for unborn children to a series of dogs; now they’re using Arthurian names. And I had a cairn terrier named Lucy, because it’s a Scottish breed and I named her after Lucia di Lammermoor. And her companion cat was Edgar. While the children’s names were clearly human, one could argue whether the Arthurian and Scott/Donizetti names were human or simply a more esoteric variation on calling dogs Lassie or Lad or Jip or Sandy after popular fictional characters.

    • Drew Smith Says:

      Small world. My partner, who is an opera fanatic, likes to name our cats after operatic characters, and named our youngest cat (a black cat) “Lucy” for Lucia di Lammermoor. I named her brother “Jack” (short for “Jack O’Lantern”) because he’s an orange tabby, with unusual side markings, and we picked up Lucy and Jack on Halloween. So there’s always a story behind pet names.

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