Naming Rites

When I was a kid, we had a half-grown calf named T-Bone. The name, while prophetic, was not meant to be cruel.  On the contrary, it was meant to save heartache.  When my dad brought home that calf, he wanted to be sure that my sister and I did not treat it as a pet.  The idea was that he would fatten it over the summer and then send it off to the butcher in the fall.  Then, he explained, we could have T-Bone steaks in the winter. 

The plan failed miserably. T-Bone turned out to be an endearing little fellow with big brown eyes and ears that begged to be scratched.  Since he was alone on the mountain hillside, he would eat his fill of green grass and then lie in the shade near the yard fence and watch us come and go.  He loved to lick salt right out of our hands.  He did this cute little sideways cartwheel of joy when he saw us coming. 

Not surprisingly, when winter came and it was time to send T-Bone to the butcher, my dad had a mutiny on his hands.  Even my mother chimed in and declared that she could not eat a bite of steak, knowing where it came from.  So T-Bone was spared.  Instead of eating steak that winter, we ate hamburger that came out of cellophane packages from Winn Dixie.  We knew in our heart of hearts that the hamburger came from cattle, but we were consoled by the fact that at least we didn’t know their names.

Names were important at the farm where I grew up.  Since the idea of naming an animal the thing it was to become clearly didn’t work with T-Bone, my dad tried another tactic: we would not name anything that was destined to be food.  Ever. We also would not name anything that we were not planning to keep. Over the years, we had a procession of animals through the farm which included dogs, cats, poultry, sheep, horses, donkeys, and cattle. Some of them were pets, some of them were work animals, some of them were raised to be sold to other people, and a few of them were food. Although my dad was a seasoned farmer, he had two little girls who were tender-hearted and got unduly attached to the creatures around our farm, no matter what their ultimate purpose. It was not easy on him or us.

 My father and his beagles

My father and his beagles

My dad raised and trained beagles, and we were allowed to play with the bright-eyed, wiggly little bundles as much as we wanted to.  We could put them in our doll carriages and dress them up in our doll clothes.  But we were not supposed to name them.  That privilege was afforded the men in billed caps who eventually came and took them to their new homes.  My sister and I would cry as the puppies were driven away--one by one--looking forlornly at us from the back of a pickup truck.  The truth of the matter was that we were the ones forlorn. We might not have named those puppies out loud, but in our hearts we had named them, and that made us lonely for them.

My dad was very practical about names.  He believed that names should be short and easy to pronounce so that the animal could learn it easily.  He also thought that a name ought to reflect something real about the animal.  Consequently, we had a horse named Ginger (for her color), one called Blaze (for the stripe down his nose),  and later one named Pal (short for Palomino).  My goats were called simply Nanny and Billy. There were dogs named Stubby, Spot, Brownie, and Mattie (who got her name not from her looks but instead her origin—she was found abandoned on a dirty mattress on the side of an old road and then made her home with us the rest of her life).  The only exception my father made to this rule was a little black and tan dog named Judy Belle who watched over me in my childhood.  I remember that he cried when Judy Belle was eventually run over by a farm truck. 

 Pal the Palomino

Pal the Palomino

Now that I have a farm of my own, I find myself being practical about names, too. It would be impossible to name every chicken, or pigeon, or turkey on the farm since we have so many. (Plus we too adhere to the rule that you don’t name it unless you plan to keep it. And certainly you don’t name it if you might eat it someday.)  Still, the naming ritual is important here.  All of the furry creatures have names, and sometimes some of the special birds do as well. Everyone in the family vies for the chance to name a newcomer to the farm.  Our oldest daughter helped name our little dog Lucky who—as my dad pointed out—was lucky to be alive since she was from an unwanted litter of pups.  My middle daughter watched the movie The Hours with us and then agreed on Mrs. Dalloway as a name for the new kitten we rescued from the pound. And when our youngest daughter was given the honor of selecting the name for our English shepherd puppy, she deliberated for weeks until  she eventually decided to name her after Heidi, the main character in the beloved book from her childhood. 

When I get to choose a name for an animal, I try to let it reflect something real about its recipient. Like my dad, I often go for the short, easy to pronounce name—Turk for our big Anatolian shepherd whose breed originates in Turkey, Big Red for the boss rooster of the farm. I made a bit of an exception when I chose Solomon as the name for our old sweet donkey—I figured that a creature as kind and wise as he was deserved a biblical, royal name. And he did.

 Solomon the Donkey

Solomon the Donkey

Walton is the exact opposite.  When it is his turn, he goes for the flamboyant, the literary, the exotic.  He once had a pet snake named Cleopatra.   He named the pretty little black filly born on the farm Lady’s Midnight Masterpiece, to be called Notchka which is Russian for “little night.”  But in front of our guests we resort to calling her Midnight since the Russian sounds unfamiliar to their ears.  We have had peacocks named Peter the Great, Pavel, Raja, Isis, and Shazaam.  There is an entire family of bunnies named for Shakespeare’s tragedy:  Hamlet, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.  The only problem with that system was that we got confused and Hamlet (not Ophelia) eventually had babies so we had to switch their names after the first little bunnies were born. I don’t think the bunnies minded too much though.

That was one of the few times we have changed an animal’s name.  Once you get named, here, you usually are good for life. Ask our duck, Mr Quackers, who was donated by our neighbors because he was lonely and sleeping on their stoop. And if an animal comes to us with a name, it gets to keep it.  Our  sorrel horse, Lady, has kept her name for ten years even though she is decidedly unladylike at times. Someone once sold me a horse named D.J., and I called him that for twelve years, not ever knowing what his initials stood for.  We used to speculate:  Don Juan maybe?  (He didn’t seem the lover type.) Disc Jockey? (He clearly wasn’t musical.) Dumb Jackass?  (Only sometimes, when he was being extra ornery when I rode him.) 

 David the Rooster

David the Rooster

But in general, we try to avoid people names for animals.  That seems to always cause trouble. When a young guest decided to call our friendly white rooster David, a lot of confusion ensued since we had a farm worker also called David, and so continually got them mixed up.  “Have you seen David today?” I would ask Walton. “Yeah, he is on top of the chicken house,” he might reply.  And it would only be after I heard the hammer tinging on the tin roof that I understood that he was referring to David the Person, not David the Rooster.  And recently, despite my no-people-names rule, our daughter named our new little piggy Josephine after the main character in Little Women. That may have been a mistake seeing  as how I have an aunt named Josephine.  I don’t think that we have successfully convinced anyone that the pig was not named after her.  Luckily Josephine the Person has a good sense of humor and still gives me homemade pickles for Christmas.

 David the Person

David the Person

Recently Joe and Kathy, sweet young neighbors from down the road, came to visit, and we went to check on the pigeons. The pigeons are new to the farm and special to me since they are like the breed of racing pigeons that my dad always kept.  I think of my dad every time I see them circle and dance in the skies over the farm.  To our delight, we discovered that in addition to a juvenile pigeon that I had already named Squeaker (because—you guessed it!--he squeaks a lot), there were two new baby pigeons in the dovecot. Since my own daughters are grown-up and no longer at home, I offered Joe and Kathy the privilege of naming them. Joe quickly decided to name one of them Cricket because he said that he just thought that was a good name for a pigeon.  His little sister –only five--deliberated a long time, though, before choosing. First she thought that she would name the little pigeon Ice Cream, then she decided on Cream Puff, then changed her mind again and considered calling it Chocolate.  But none of these names satisfied her.  Kathy wrinkled her brow and shook her blonde curls as she pondered such an important decision.  Finally, her eyes lit up, and she knew just the right name.  The little pigeon, she triumphantly declared, would be called Sprinkles. (Apparently she had been to the ice cream parlor before coming to visit the farm!)

Even though the names weren’t exactly practical, I’m glad they named the birds:  I guess it means that we get to keep them! I am reminded of the fact that although our naming rituals don’t always reflect something real about the creature being named, they do often reflect something real about us.  And it occurred to me that maybe we name the beings that we love, not so much to affirm their existence, but instead to affirm our own.  As the children and I walked toward the barn, all the adult pigeons flew out of the coop with a great whoosh and circled overhead, catching the sunlight as they soared, free of any human constraints or attempts to define them by name. We stopped and stared in awe of the pure joy of their flight.

By Betty Miller Conway