How to Name Your Pet

Pete So High


Veneer of Charm


Max Dynamite


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.

28 thoughts on “How to Name Your Pet

  1. I named my westie Agnes because I wanted a Scottish name for her! (And I love Agnes from Despicable Me 😊) I like human names for pets because pets are as important to me as people, but I know I’m an oddity there.

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  2. A character in a video game that I enjoy had named his car Ser Pounce-a-lot. I found it so strange when I first read it. Two of my cats have regular human names and I get weird looks whenever people ask what they’re called. It’s strange how it all works.

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  3. I looked to the Cornish language for my pet name and found the wonderfully descriptive of our new, unlikely to grow very large puppy ‘Gwynnik’. ‘Gwynn’ is white, suffix ‘ik’ for small… so little white thing. Ideal.

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  4. Before our current two reprobates, I had a Giant Schnauzer, we called her Tosca, and yes, she was an absolute diva! Crazy dog!

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  5. Guide dog litters are named by going through the alphabet. I think they ignore X, but when it comes to a Z litter or a Q litter, then you can be sure of some more unusual names for the puppies. I was lucky with Cindy, but some guide dog names are a bit odd!

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  6. Some cats that wandered into my world were given names like Crooked, Saudi, D.J. & Butch, the dogs were given names like Ginger and Snowball…my Mom lived on a bucolic property up country where she became known as the cat lady, people would drop off their cats and she would take them in…some of their names were Peaches, Misty, Ralph and Cheeky. Thank you for the trip down memory lane…you made me smile (again!)!

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  7. A lot of my pets had names based on how they looked. My dog was Angel (she was white plus she survived parvo), my cat was Stripes (she was a tabby), my guinea pig was Cinnamon (she was cinnamon colored) & my chinchilla is Valentine (he’s albino so he’s white with red eyes).

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  8. My pets have all had names that mean something, although my dog is called Lulu, which is just Lulu! My cat is called Purdy (because she purrs). I have had cats called Olly (he was a stray that we took in one Christmas, thought he was a she, named “her” Holly, then that became Olly on discovery of the mistake), Sid (after Sydney Australia where we lived for a while), Maggie (after The magnetic Islands, one of my fave places in the world) and Heidi (because she loved to get in drawers) I think I might go off piste with my next stray I end up with! haha

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