Pete So High
Veneer of Charm
These are the names of just some of the racehorses in action at the Fairyhouse racetrack in Ireland today. Have you ever wondered why racehorses have such strange names?
The answer is pretty straightforward. Most of the associations that govern horseracing, like the Jockey Club in the United States, have similar and strict rules about naming horses. They can’t feature punctuation, for example, be more than 18 letters long, or feature a real person’s name.
This is naturally going to limit owners in terms of the names they can choose. Still, I think people have got so used to unusual racehorse names that owners compete with each other a little to come up with more unusual names. And I think it’s only natural to want your horse’s name to stand out a bit.
All this got me thinking about how we name animals, specifically pets. When I was young and our family brought our dogs home for the first tim, I’d always try to get a laugh by hilariously suggesting we give them prosaic human names like Anthony, or Eric, or Brian. Like I said, clearly hilarious, and not the kind of thing you’d quickly get tired of at all. Clearly such names were ridiculous, but why?
It’s not like we never give pets human names. In fact, the four dogs we had over the years were called Benji, Jake, Gypsy, and Daisy. And while you don’t meet too many Benjis these days, all four are still names that could easily be given to a person.
Looking at some of the most common English-language names for pets (specifically dogs), there are a few others that would also work for a human. Toby, Charlie, Sadie, Chloe, Sophie, Zoe, Abby etc.
But then of course there’s Buddy, and Rocky, and Bear, and Lucky, which you could name your children if you wanted, but it’s a little less likely isn’t it? I mean, they’re not Spot or Fido, but they’re not a million miles away either.
What is it that makes some names fit for both pets and people? If you take a look back at the ones that work for both, they all share something in common: E. Well, the sound /i:/, as in Benji, Daisy, Gypsy etc. I’ve mentioned before that we no longer have a standard diminutive form in English, but adding the /i:/ sound to the end of a name is a pretty common way to achieve the effect. Just look at some of the other names a little further down the lists of popular dog names: Teddy, Sammy, Rosie, Annie, Gracie: all diminutive forms of common human names.
I think that’s what makes them work: they’re recognisably human names, so we’ve no problem using them for our children. But using the diminutive makes them more playful and a little less serious, perfectly suitable for our furry little friends.
Thinking back to the rules for naming racehorses, we should consider ourselves lucky that we don’t have similar rules for naming pets. I can’t imagine we’d feel so close to Mametz Wood or Limerick Lord.
Oh, and that’s Gizmo in the picture up top by the way, proving that there are no hard rules in the English language, only patterns with lots of exceptions.