Yesterday, for some reason, I was thinking about when I read the comic book Tintin au Tibet to practise my French. My mind then wandered to the fact that Tintin’s dog’s name is Milou in the original French (Snowy in English). I clearly had nothing better to be doing, because I then dwelled upon the fact that superficially, Milou has no obvious meaning*, unlike Snowy. Just, I thought, like English-language dogs’ names like Fido.
But then I thought: maybe Fido does mean something…
It had jumped out at me as the most obvious example of a “nonsense” pet name. But as soon as I saw the word in my mind’s eye, a possible meaning for it seemed quite obvious. I thought of words like fidelity, and considered how trusting and faithful dogs can be, and realised that the name likely derived from the animals’ famous loyalty.
And such is the case, as it derives from the Latin fidus (trustworthy, loyal, faithful, etc).
Still, it’s not actually such a common name (I’ve certainly never actually met a Fido). Why then, is the name one of the stereotypical dog names that immediately come to mind?
It’s all thanks to Abraham Lincoln. He had a number of pets in his home before become President of the United States, and one dog in particular, Fido, may have been an especially faithful companion during his bouts of depression. When he moved to the White House, his wife Mary Todd apparently felt that it would be inappropriate to bring pets along with them. So Fido was left behind, much to the dismay of their children. To comfort them, Lincoln had the dog photographed in a number of positions (that’s him at the top of the page), and told the children that having the photographs would be just as good as having Fido with them (by all accounts, they didn’t agree).
Once people became aware of the photos, the name became much more popular, and more so again after Lincoln’s asassination. I suspect though, that at some point, naming your dog Fido came to be seen as almost sacreligious (like calling someone Jesus), and it fell out of popularity, but still remains in our imagination as the name of the archetypal good boy.
*It did to Milou and Tintin’s creator Hergé though, as it was the nickname of his ex-girlfriend!