Britney VS. Spot: Dog names then and now

  • Magazine: ModernDog
  • Issue: Winter 2005
Britney vs. Spot

Atticus. Barney. Charlie. Esther. Flossie. And George.

No, not characters in your favourite old Bobsey Twins book, just a sprinkling of celebrities’ dogs’ names. (Okay, celebrities and one Modern Dog staffer.) A little bit of (very fun) research, and an intimate relationship with everyone’s good friend Google, and accessing that all-important list of Hollywood’s dogs is mere seconds away.

From Jennifer Aniston and the main man in her life, Norman, to Sienna Miller’s two most loyal pals, Porgy and Bess, there is one dog clearly missing from the list. And if I could somehow squeeze in a Shakespearean pun-of-a-hint without it feeling too forced, this is where I would say: “Out, damn Spot!” But since that would be nothing short of an embarrassingly dad-like eye-roller, instead I ask:

What ever happened to baby Spot?

In those dusty red elementary school readers of old, Dick and Jane appeared to spend hours seeing Spot run. Times – and names – were simpler then. Humans had human names. Dogs had dog names. And, while I can’t be sure since I wasn’t there, it’s rumoured that even a coffee was just called a “coffee”. Stand at a dog park today and yell: “Spot!” and my guess is you’ll have about the same level of reception as if you stood at the counter of your corner café and yelled: “Coffee!” The blank, confused, “who are you talking to and what is it you want?” looks would be nothing short of identical.

In the olden days, before they had modern conveniences like iPods, digital cameras, and reality TV (I’m serious, people used to live like that!), dogs were thought of as, gulp, dogs. Perhaps it could be argued that no other animal has evolved in the psyche of the western world quite like the role of dog. The Spots of old slept with the pigs and chickens in the barn and ate whatever scraps the family didn’t finish at dinner that night. Even if they do have their own perfectly good, special-ordered monogrammed LL Bean bed, the Spots of today are tucked in between human-mom and dad on a Sealy Posturepedic. Imagine if the chickens and pigs had been so lucky? And today’s Spots are no longer Spots, because well, who names a family member a synonym for “blob”? That’s just so… inanimate. Like a chair. Or a bike. Weird.

Children of the 80s – okay, admittedly girls of the 80s, really – still sing the score made famous by everyone’s favourite curly red-headed orphan cum little rich Warbucks girl, Annie. In an effort to select the perfect name for her newly found stray dog, the orphans did what any normal gaggle of girls would do. They burst into song:

“What’s his name, Annie? Guess. Ah… FiFi? (That ain’t a name for this mutt.) Well how about Champion? (Champion he’s anything but.) We could call him Tiger. (But there’s no fight in him.) Tiger? (Kittens would frighten him.) Rover, why not think it over? Rover is the perfect name for this dumb-looking dog.”

While bursting into song is still a common problem-solving technique among people today (“What are you going to order, Mary-Jo? / Guess. / Ah… a martini? / That ain’t a drink for this girl. / Well how about a merlot? / A merlot will stain my teeth red…”), what is most indicative of how times have changed are the names that Annie’s 1930s depression-era friends suggest. FiFi, Champion, Tiger, and Rover are, well, names for a dog. How could people who could barely afford to clothe and feed themselves add to their list of challenges by thinking of a dog in human terms? It just wasn’t done.

Over the decades, as dogs made the quick sprint from hay-pile to Egyptian cotton sheets, their names – like their sleeping abodes – became a whole lot more people-esque. Today, Molly, Chloé, and Lucy could not only be the kids in your daughter’s kindergarten class photo, but dogs who are likely just as well dressed.

In a San Francisco Examiner article, onomastician (someone interested in the study of names – really.) professor Leonard Ashley says: “It may seem silly to get into discussing pet names, but it tells you a lot. It’s human behavior. Mankind names things. And names show the psychology behind it all.” In the same article, dogfood manufacturer KalKan spokesperson Alice Nathanson references a survey of dog owners in New York and Los Angeles: “More and more, pets are true family members.” And so the names reflect.

But the human names selected for these canine monikers, are anything but random. Much thought is given to what a new parent will name their four-legged offspring. The result is a host of websites dedicated to this very important dog-naming process. One such site gives readers the crucial update on what celebrity names are most being used as the namesake for companions. In Britain, for example, there is an onslaught of names like “Britney”, “Posh”, and “Ozzy” strutting at the collared-end of the leash. Or, like actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s dog Atticus, there is a trend to name after fictitious characters we admire. (What dog wouldn’t be destined to achieve great things – if not in the court room, then at the very least chasing a stick – with a name reminiscent of Harper Lee’s well-respected fair man Finch?) From favourite actors and authors to favourite homemaking gurus (there are more than a handful of barking Marthas out there), we are paying homage to our heroes and heroines by bestowing their names on the tags of our best friends.

Interestingly though, a search of what celebrities are naming their babies (the human kind) yields a slightly more disturbing reality. According to VH-1’s All Access: Awesomely Wacky Celebrity Baby Names, celebrity baby names are getting all the more “awesomely wacky”. With the birth of an Apple, a Racer, a Rocket, and a Rebel, perhaps the question isn’t whatever happened to baby Spot? But whatever happened to babies Dick and Jane?

So while today babies are named after fruit and dogs are named after humans, it’s not all that astonishing that ordering a coffee sounds less like ordering a coffee, and more like, say, writing a personals ad. (For what’s it’s worth, I like mine tall with no fat.)