A Dog by Any Other Name
AFTER dinner tonight we finally decided on a name for our new puppy. It's the first dog we've raised from a puppy since Lesley and I had children. When I saw a photograph of the litter on a bulletin board at work - nine young Bernese Mountain Dog/Labrador Retrievers, ready to go "to nice homes by the first week in May," I thought it might be nice to have a young partner for our dog Nick to train. So we packed the family into the car on Saturday afternoon, told the kids we were visiting friends who had a
lot of puppies - no mention of acquiring one - and drove out to Randy and Stephanie's.
The ensuing frolic on the lawn was right out of a camera commercial: three Nelson kids, ages 7, 6, and 2.75 with nine rambunctious puppies, aged 7 weeks. Without alerting the kids, Lesley and I narrowed our interest to two males with the brown and black markings we liked, then chose the more contemplative of the two. This led to the first suggestion for his name: Ferdinand. Our daughter Hilary proposed it, thinking of the storybook bull who preferred sitting under a cork tree to charging matadors.
To the surprise and pleasure of the children, the puppy came home in the car with us, met Nick, and started to scope out the backyard while we continued to work on the all-important name. Moses had potential (we would call him Mo) or Tom? Our neighbor Jack proposed "Norm" because he liked the alliterative pair of Nick and Norm. Though the kids liked them, we vetoed names used by friends for recent newborn babies. This ruled out Matthew (his older brother preferred "Dimension X," a character on He-Man), B
ennett, and Sam. Nor did we feel we could use the names of relatives, which ruled out Derek, Bob, and Lowell. No names already in use as pet names: good-bye to Indiana, Bud, Bear, Vinnie, and Tiger; Sesame Street characters? Ernie and Bert had possibilities.
Sound is crucial, I pointed out. The name of a dog can't sound like the commands the dog will have to learn, like "sit,stay,come," and "down" for starters. So names and names were out - Simon, Spud, Carl, Kip, Kareem. I thought this made my choice, Mo, a natural winner.
We have always tended toward the use of people names for our pets rather than "pet names." Our friend Ruth points out that this is an indication of the status of the pet in the family: full-fledged membership, with all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities pertaining thereto. Dogs are people too.
When I was growing up, naming the pets in the family required intense conclaves which ultimately had very little effect on what we called the dog. Their given names were literate and often regal: Victoria (with whom we once had a litter of nine - oh, the names of that brood!), Tanya, Rebecca, Jonah. For some reason Jonah, a golden (laundry) retriever, was called Gooster and Dufas with more regularity than his real name. He always met us at the door carrying a dozen dirty socks.
When Lesley and I named our first dog Dylan, we ended up calling him "Woofie" and "Whippy Toeshoe," after his predilection for my sister's worn out ballet shoes. My sister's name is Jonatha, but we call her "Boolie." Our current dog Nick is Nickle, Boogins, Goombah, just Big Doggie, or simply Biggest One.
This playing with names must be akin to Cockney Rhyming slang ("Daisy Roots Boots"): Somehow through playful usage a given name turns into a nickname which is finally the real name for the person, place, or thing. The nickname is often a more accurate representation of character and a suitable diminutive all at once, saying something about as well as to the bearer.
The naming of children involves the same phenomenon. By the time we were expecting our third child we considered going straight to the nickname and not bothering with a formal given name. But of course you just can't plot these things. It takes time to create a name. Nicknames are achieved, not thrust upon the individual. Our son Spencer somehow became "Pokey"; Hilary is more often "Higgy" or "Flo." And then there is Ariel Rose Nelson, whom we call simply "Weenie.Ariel," aside from being a Shakespearian
character, is an Old Testament name meaning "lion of God." She is anything but weenie.
The list for the puppy's given name kept expanding: Joe (after our favorite rapscallion in "Miss Nelson is Missing," by James Marshall), Buddy (a friend of mine had named all of his dogs "Buddy regardless of breed or personality), and Jake. Mo still headed the list. In fact, I went to church on Sunday morning thinking that we had reached consensus on that name. But when I returned home an hour later, his name was Jake. A nice name, but it just wasn't right for the character emerging in this pooch as we w
atched him razz Biggest One and chew dish towels. We needed a name that had nickname potential, something malleable, a name that would be a vessel for rhyming word play.
WE tried to vote, unsuccessfully, to break a deadlock. Hilary and Spencer were banding together against whatever the parental choices were, and Ariel wanted a name made entirely of vowels. Then we resorted to a lottery. Each family member who could write put one name on a card and Weenie picked the winning name from a bowl. "Buddy" won. But Pokey howled "no fair he didn't like this one bit. It was to be Jake or nothing at all. Higgy was still backing Ferdinand, though she was more cheerful about the pro c
ess. Spencer pointed out that we got the dog for the kids in the family so the kids should choose the name. Of course when it came to feeding "Buddy/Jake/Mo," he had used the same argument in reverse. "He's your dog so you have to feed him." Ownership depends on whether the topic is responsibility or play.
We tried to make Buddy stick, but after one walk around the block with Buddy and Nick, it was clear that we hadn't finished the job. He just wasn't a Buddy. This vessel was half empty.
Then, as we all sat eating cookies and watching the news on television, his name simply evanesced. It was instantly clear to us all that we had struck pay dirt and there was no need for a vote or second lottery. We named him Louie.