By Mikita Brottman
Ideally, we should wait until we’ve got a sense of a dog’s personality before picking out a name, but puppy-owners, like would-be parents, often have a name in mind long before they lay eyes on their new arrival.
Grisby is the first and only dog I’ve ever owned, and I had his name picked out before he was even born. One evening, my partner David and I watched a French movie from 1954 called Touchez Pas au Grisbi (translation: Don’t Touch the Loot). The film was about a band of world-weary French gangsters who sit around in a bar planning a heist and mumbling about le grisbi (old-fashioned French criminal slang whose equivalent is something like “loot” or “booty”).
As I recall, we both thought it would be an appropriate name for the dog we were planning to acquire not only because it was French (though we’ve Anglicized the spelling), but also because it’s a tough, macho way of saying “treasure,” perfect for a little French bulldog.
I could never have imagined that Grisby’s name, chosen almost at random, would come to be so full of meaning for me. “You will likely call your dog’s name over 50,000 times,” advises the author of How to Raise and Train a French Bulldog. “Pick a name you like!” In his book Bashan and I, the German writer Thomas Mann writes that of all the pleasures he shares with his dog, none is so great for him as addressing the creature over and over again by his name. “Bashan” is the only word that Mann’s devoted and playful setter seems to understand, and his master loves driving him into crazy fits of ecstasy reminding him that not only is his name Bashan, but he is Bashan, a truth the dog never seems to tire of.
Grisby feels the same way; he seems to love his special name as much I love to say it. Of course, now we’ve been together for eight years, I can’t separate the name from the animal it signifies, and it irritates me when people who’ve known him for years still haven’t grasped it, calling him Grigsby, Bigsby, Gribley or Grimsby.
We name our dogs the way we name our children; we name the child we imagine having—the child we want—rather than the child we get. Bearing this in mind, there’s a lot to learn about people from the names they give their dogs. Some prefer a name they’ve heard before; others pick something they consider unique, as I did. As with baby names, fashions in dog names go in cycles. In ancient Roman households, it was trendy to give Greek names to your hounds (and your slaves).
The most popular Roman dog names were descriptive: Ferox (“Savage”), Melampus (“Blackfoot”), Patricius (“Noble”) and “Skylax” (“Puppy”). Ancient Greece witnessed no reciprocal vogue for Roman names, though Greek dogs were rarely saddled with the polysyllabic names of their owners (Agamemnon, Olympiodoros). Xenophon, a Greek historian who wrote about hounds in the fourth century BC, maintained that the best names are short, consisting of no more than one or two syllables, so the dogs may be easily called. Popular names were those that expressed speed, courage and strength, such as Aura (“Breeze”), Horme (“Eager”), Korax (“Raven”), and Labros (“Fierce”).
In the United States, until around fifty years ago, dogs were generally working animals rather than household pets, and their names reflected their tasks and talents: Hunter, Skipper, Pilot, Sailor, Shep. Simple, one-syllable names like Buck, Lad, Jack and Pal are still popular for working dogs; they’re easy for the animals to learn, and the owners to yell. Grandiose names like Caesar, Nero, and Napoleon have always been in fashion among purebred pets (and people), and descriptive names—Patch, Jet, Domino, Ginger—are still sometimes heard, though not as much as they once were. Traditional dog names like Rover and Fido are also out of fashion; these days, dogs seldom rove, and few of us speak Latin.
Today, at least in Europe and the U.S., very few dogs are kept as working animals. Most pooches live in the home and sleep in their owner’s bed; their only task is to provide affection and attention, and they succeed like never before. According to a recent survey, fifteen percent of British dog owners consider their pet more important than their cousin, and six percent confessed they even preferred their pet to their own partner. Sixteen percent even listed their dogs as household members in the 2011 British Census, some even listing them as their “son” on the official form.
The deeper the bond we form with our dogs, it seems, the more we make them over in our own image; in keeping with their role as full family members, dogs are now commonly given human names. Today, for the first time in history, the same names turn up in top-ten lists for both babies and dogs: Chloe, Bella, and Sophie for girls, Charlie, Jack, and Max for boys. The same trend is common in Europe, except for the more strictly Catholic countries, where it’s considered sacrilegious to call “soulless animals” by human names.
One fashion that hasn’t changed over time is the tendency for macho guys to give their tough dogs fighting names. In 2012, the top three names for male pit bull terriers were Tyson, Diesel and Tank. Other names in the pit bull top ten include Chaos, Sherman, and Panzer. Puppies that recover from early misfortunes are inevitably named Lucky or Chance. Rocky is the most popular name for dogs that bite, according to San Francisco Health Department records, closely followed by Mugsy, Max and Zeke.
When naming your dog, perhaps the most important thing to remember is not to have any preconceptions. In my experience, whatever their breed, dogs are as unique and individual as humans, and you can’t make a fighter into a lapdog by naming her Fifi, any more than you can make a gentle dog tough by naming him Butch.
Mikita Brottman is a humanities professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. This is an extract from her book The Great Grisby, published in October 2014 by HarperCollins. Check out her website.