provenance: unknown

On Naming Cats

In humanity's long and painful history of naming things, a few particularly unfortunate moments stand out, and only certain of those moments have got their due response. When the Germans said, Let's call the butterfly "Schmetterling," the world rightly cringed. The United States named its president "George Bush," and the world shuddered. But when a certain anonymous and otherwise kindly family in a small town in New England named a kitten "Bopper," the world let it pass without remark. The time has come for this injustice to be set right.

Our manner and habit of naming cats in general is doubly regrettable: Not only do cats not really need names, the ones they get are often dreadful. They are by turns trite, clichéd, self-serious and cheesy. Cats named "Snookie" or "Whiskers" or "Cat." Black cats named "Snowball," and white ones named "Shadow." Purebreds named "Amadeus" or "Napoleon" or "Coco Chanel." Cats named "McCavity," "Mephistopheles," or "Cookies and Cream." With names for cats, it seems, you have your pick: Do you want tedious, or just plain bad?

But "Bopper" tears it. My own family adopted the unfortunate creature, not in any conscious act of mercy, but in hopes of addressing a certain mouse problem. The newspaper ad didn't mention the adoptees by name, only by species, and we went to investigate — and discovered Bopper.

This "Bopper" wasn't a kangaroo, mind you, or even a weapon of mass destruction. He was a cat. A cat, one of the most perfect expressions of grace and beauty you can find in a domestic human household, called "Bopper." No doubt the name has already been added to the list of reasons why God's buddies make fun of Him for that whole Garden of Eden fiasco.

My family, wisely, renamed Bopper; we called him "Smudge" instead. He received this name for the orange splotch on his face, and as a sacrifice to a greater principle. I myself adopted this principle, and deliberately, too — humans are utter amateurs when it comes to naming cats, I thought, and, I decided, they must be mocked, no matter what the cost.

Bopper came with an older sister, whose original owners had named her "Lady." She disappeared within 15 seconds of her arrival at our house, however (and it wasn't until much later that night that we found her, behind the books in a bookcase in my parents' bedroom). We named her, in her absence, "Missing."

Missing had two litters before she got fixed. Her first litter was small — only three kittens — and we kept one. She was beautiful beyond compare; her shape was perfect. It oozed cat — grace and fluidity and beauty and small-rodent death. Her beauty was such that, each time you looked at her, it simply amazed you, no matter how prepared for it you thought you were. I named her "Halogen Lamp."

I could name her "Halogen Lamp" without compunction because she was a cat. In my family household, no cat was addressed by its given name, but by the Hungarian equivalent of "kitty": "cica" (pronounced 'tsi-tsa'). There were only two times a cat's given name was invoked: When we talked about it behind its back, and when we made an appointment with the vet — and for these purposes, "Halogen Lamp" served quite as well as any name you please.

We also kept one kitten from Missing's second litter, but in his case I succumbed to sentiment, and he ended up with the name "Tigger." I had always wanted a cat named "Tigger," but I quickly regretted it. Oh, the mistakes of youth. The name fits the cat not at all; he is another gorgeous, powerful creature (and quite the lord of his domain, both inside the house and out) who would eat a Piglet in half a second, and leave his head and tail as souvenirs on Christopher Robin's doorstep, along with some other, unidentified organ, about the size and shape of a smooth raisin, that he for some reason finds distasteful.

As ill fitting a cat as he is for his name, Tigger should be grateful, I suppose. I have considered this pet-naming-mocking business very seriously, you see — and even withdrawn myself from the din and hubbub of civilization to better ponder the matter in self-imposed seclusion.

And I have arrived at a clear and unmistakable principle for naming cats: A cat name should evoke none of the sappy, cloying baby-talk that humans so often fall prey to when addressing small and especially new-born creatures. Yet it should instantly convey the absolute absurdity of that vile tendency. A pet name should say, in clear and unmistakable terms, "This is the stupidest name one could conceivably invent for an animal, unless one were to call it 'Bopper.' "

There are indeed sufficiently many names that support this principle. Generally, names for household items serve quite nicely. "Toaster Oven," "Rolodex" and "Escalator" are all excellent names for cats, by this standard. (Though if you have an escalator at home, you had best keep the cat away from it.) Inspiration can also be found in the bathroom: "Hot Tub" (though not if the cat in question is in any way rotund), "Nozzle" and "Toothpaste" are all quite serviceable (though "Bidet" is inadvisable, as you will forever be having to spell it for the veterinarian). In fact, good cat names can be found in virtually every area of human endeavor, with a minimum of effort.

This manner of naming can also be exploited to tackle the otherwise daunting prospect of naming multiple cats. In such circumstances, themes are often helpful in finding names that work with each other. Bridges are one possibility: "Covered"; "Suspension"; "Draw"; and perhaps even "Throgs Neck." Or scientific instruments, perhaps — "Microscope," "Particle Accelerator," "Slide Rule." Medical procedures also have promise, as well: "Colonoscopy," Appendectomy," "MRI."

(My own personal favorite, by the way, adds just a whiff of abstraction to the prescribed mix of the arbitrary and artificial: "Appliance" — "Appliance the Cat." It speaks to a whole generation of post-modernists in a way that only they could properly fail to describe.)

If you are thinking of naming a cat yourself, you will find a virtually infinite playground of inappropriate terminology to toy with. I caution you to consider the defining power of this act carefully, and to be sure to call upon professional assistance when you find yourself out of your depth, however. The tragedy that can result from careless efforts in this field is terrible indeed — if you ever find yourself tempted to vote for a cat named "George Bush," please, just write in the name "Bopper" instead.


3/27/02

Copyright ©2002 Matt Pfeffer

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