A pet name trend that people can’t resist | Catch My Job


Long, long ago — five years to be exact — Jeff Owens accepted that his calls to the vet would tax his strength. When the person on the other end asks for his name, Owens, the Albuquerque Test scorer, says, “Jeff. When they ask his cat’s name, he has to tell them, “Baby Jeff. A black exotic shorthaired, whistling female with a squashed face and deep orange eyes, is named after Owens, says his partner, Brittany Means, whose tweet about Jeff and baby Jeff went viral last spring. The whole thing started as a joke a few years ago, when Means started calling every newcomer to their home — the car, the couch — “Baby Jeff.” Faced with blank adoption papers in 2017, the couple realized that just one name would do.

Baby Jeff is a strange (though very good!) name, but not as strange as it would have been a century or two ago. In the US, and much of the rest of the Western world, we officially live in the era of bequeathing our pets some pretty human names. It’s one of the most prominent reminders that these animals have become “members of the family,” says Shelli Volsche, an anthropologist at Boise State University, to the point where they are given “agency and personhood.” The animals in our homes usually receive so many acts of love that people shower on the little people in their care; pets share our beds, our food, our clothes. So why not our names?

Names and the nature of the human-animal relationship were not always like that. Kathleen Walker-Meikle, medieval historian at the Science Museum Group and author Medieval Pets, found records from the Middle Ages describing dogs with names that alluded to some part of their physical appearance (Sturdy or Whitefoot), or to an object that appealed to their human (a 16th-century Swiss coachman once owned a dog named Speichli , or “Small Speech”). Details about cats are rarer, Walker-Meikle told me, but some Old Irish legal texts mention several cats, among them Cruibne (“little paws”) and Breone (“little flame”).

a man holding a black cat in his right hand
Jeff (right) and Baby Jeff (Brittany Means)

Even when they are people’s names did emerging during this era, and for several centuries that followed, they were trendy as wacky, cheesy, cute, even pop-cultural—nothing that would easily be confused with a baby name. The 18th-century English painter William Hogarth named his pug Trump — perhaps an Anglicization of a Dutch admiral named Tromp, according to Stephanie Howard-Smith, a pet historian at King’s College London. Catherine Parr, the last of King Henry VIII’s six wives, had a dog named Gardiner, after the anti-Protestant Bishop of Winchester. “This was her enemy, who wanted to destroy her,” Walker-Meikle told me. The idea was “to write something out of it”.

Then, as the Victorian era ushered in the rise of official dog breeds, people began to reconceptualize the roles that canines could play in their homes. Once largely relegated to working roles, dogs increasingly became status symbols and objects of luxury—and as their status rose, so did the list of names they could acceptably bear. People no longer felt it was “necessary to share your name with a dog,” Howard-Smith told me. Diminutive animal names — Jack or Fanny, not John or Francis — also became more common, paving the way for even more overlap down the line.

The big boom happened in the 20th century, and by its second half, the lists of most popular dog and baby names became terribly difficult to distinguish. Today, you could probably “go to the playground and shout ‘Alice!,‘ and maybe even dogs and girls would flock to you,” says Katharina Leibring, a language and dialect expert at Uppsala University in Sweden. Cats, meanwhile, seem to be “kind of behind in getting human names,” or maybe they got any names at all, Walshe told me. Even in 19th-century texts, Howard-Smith noted accounts of families naming their dogs, but would only refer to it as “cat.”

Findings like these have been true in several countries, but pet naming trends have never been universal. In Taiwan, for example, dogs and cats can be given food names, onomatopoeic names or even English human names, such as Jasper or Bill. They do not, however, “get Chinese human names,” which have special significance, says Lindsay Chen, a linguist at National Taiwan Normal University. “We love them, but they are not human.” In Togo, Kabre people sometimes name their dogs with pointed phrases – such as Paffeifersor “they are shameless” – which, when spoken aloud, communicate their frustrations to others people without directly confronting them.

American animals lacking human names are no less beloved, but the degree of intimacy we have with modern companion animals can almost demand anthropomorphism. Joan Biondi, a Miami-based photographer, doesn’t see her Maine Coon as a “pet”; a frequent model for her artwork, he is her traveling companion, her roommate, her business partner—”a creature who shares my life,” she told me. When she adopted him 13 years ago, she wanted a name that matched his dignified features. But he also “looked like a hairy Italian soccer player,” Biondi told me, so she chose Lorenzo, sometimes putting “Il Magnifico” on the end.

a Maine Coon in an orange shirt, looking into the distance with cherries in front of him
Lorenzo the Cat (Joann Biondi)

Several experts told me that they would feel a little uncomfortable if a close family member decided to name a new pet after them. “There is still a reluctance to call animals what they really sound like.” indistinguishable of man,” Walker-Meikle told me. But some pet owners are downright inspired by the uncanny valley, including Sean O’Brien, a business software salesman in Iowa, who deliberately sought out a very human name for his cockapoo, Kyle. “It’s just funny to see people’s reactions, like, ‘Did you say?’ Hernia?'” He told me.

a pug staring at the camera
Lucy the Pug (Shelley Walshe)

A bit of the species barrier can still be found in the ways some owners play with their pets’ names. The Howard-Smith family dogs, Winnie and Arabella, have been given some inhuman nicknames: Babbi Veen, the Veenerator; Bubs, Bubski, Ballubbers, Ballubber-lubbers. Walshe’s pug, Lucy, is often referred to as Pug Nugget, Chunky Monkey, and Lucy, Snack Devourer, demands attention. My cats, Calvin and Hobbes, enjoy titles like Chumbovumbo, Chino Vatican, Fatticus Finch, Herbal Gerbil and Classic Herbs. Children with such nicknames would suffer any public humiliation. But with pets, “I think we can be a little more free,” Howard-Smith told me. That’s funny; shame; it’s “a snapshot of someone’s relationship with their pet.” These are improvised names offered privately, and animals cannot complain.

Means and Owens, Baby Jeff’s men, plan to give their animals distinctly human names. In addition to the cat, their home is also shared by a quartet of chickens: Ludwig van Beaktoven; Johann Sebastian Bawk; Brittany, Jr. (named after Means, of course – “it was my turn,” she told me); and Little Rachel (named after their human roommate). The next bird they adopt will be named Henjamin, in honor of Means’ brother Ben. But Means and Owens also have a sense that the names just don’t seem right right. “I knew this guy with a cat named Michael,” Means said. “Every time I think about it, it blows my mind.”

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