Naming conventions for cats

Posted Sept. 05, 2010, at 7:21 p.m.

Cat names occur mostly by accident at our house, which I imagine is how they happen almost everywhere. Something pops into somebody’s head that catches on, and that’s the cat’s name. They have peculiar ways of working out.

Luigi, for example, was named after a video game character. He seemed to be disintegrating from both ends toward the middle. He had a long, bent tail, pieces of which would fall off on the grass or the basement floor. And simultaneously, he did not seem to have enough gray matter at the head end even to remember the feeding routines. Luigi used up all his lives and disappeared.

We stopped naming cats for literary figures after the short, unhappy life of a very nice little orange cat named Watt, who got his name from a Samuel Beckett novel that was lying around the house at the time. Watt the fictional character was lame, and after we named the kitten we discovered that, appropriately, he had a deformed front paw.

In midsummer Watt disappeared. What happens to cats when they disappear is, of course, usually unknown. Maybe a fisher eats them. Maybe they get hit by cars. Where do they go? Sometimes, inexplicably, they return. One rainy morning weeks after we’d given up on him, I heard a faint cry and opened the back door. “It’s Watt!”

Except for being wet, bedraggled and still lame, he seemed fine. We gave him a bowl of food, and he purred on the couch.

Late that afternoon, Watt was chasing butterflies on the lawn when a dog showed up. Watt bolted into the road and a pickup truck crushed him. It was appallingly ironic, straight out of Beckett.

Premeditated names seem riskier than accidental names. When my son Jack was 11 he wanted to name a cat Hunter, and finally got the chance. Hunter was a very pleasant raincloud-gray specimen whose most vigorous activities, however, were seeking out the food bowl and returning to the couch.

Sometimes accidental names don’t work out either. Mozart was not a genius. He was a grayish lump that sat on the porch railing and stared but rarely moved. He would sit there blankly even in snowstorms. The woods are dangerous, dark and deep for the slow.

Overall the catch-as-cat-can naming method gets the best results. Sophia was a short-haired white cat named after the city in Bulgaria whose etymology includes the Greek for “wisdom.” When we named her, we did not yet know that Sophia was more intelligent than most humans.

Macy was named after a pop star because she was completely gunmetal gray and had a gorgeous round face. She turned out to be a mousing diva. Her upbeat sidekick Mojo, who annoyed mellow Macy to no end, was named after a license plate parked outside a music shop. It turned out Mojo had it working too and, like Macy, was a virtuoso grounds warden.

One premeditated name did fit. Jack wanted to name a cat after the alcoholic cartoon dog Brian. This seemed OK until the orange kitten he hung the name on appeared to be a girl. We called her Brian anyway, fearing this might cause some psychodamage. After Brian was answering to her name, she turned out to be a he. The name came around right, and Brian is almost as vocationally challenged as the alcoholic dog.

He’s pretty lovable, though. In his youth we called him Brian the Cryin’ Lion because of his vocalizations of unprovoked fright and his leonine physique. The most recent addition is Panda, who is also called things like Pandamonium and Pandaloon because he has no discernible superego controls. We like him anyway. Maybe in the future we’ll analyze the nicknames cats get, with their little nappy heads.

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