My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block

vol. 1, #38, June, 1996


It seems that many otherwise kind, loving people harbor base instincts they don't even know they have until it comes time to name a child. Then they'll do things like name it after family surnames (like my unfortunate uncle, Hilary Wentz Bagby, widely believed on the basis of his name to be a girl, and my aunt Meland, not only widely believed to be a boy but drafted during World War II). Worse, some of them have an uncontrollable urge to make the kid's name a joke, like Justin Case, Ima Hogg,etc.

These sadistic naming impulses should properly be channeled into the naming of cats or dogs or parrots or goldfish. None of them care what you call them, as long as you do it with a can opener in your hand. They will not be emotionally scarred for life by having a joke for a name, and they lack opposable thumbs to grip a gun with, so you can let your creative instincts go wild.

Over the past 30 years I have had a succession of cats, from the moment when a canny friend, invited to bestow a kitten upon us, presented us with two identical blobs of fur to choose from. My husband had a soft heart and a softer head, so we ended up with two kittens, who were immediately named for their most readily noticeable attributes--they were always underfoot, but portable enough to be transported away from the trouble they were getting into. Thus Portable and Underfoot came into our lives.

I have always been amused by British names that are long, unwieldy, and, apparently, unpronounceable as stands, so that they are stripped down to their race-car versions, like Worcestershire (Wustershur), or Cholmondeley (Chumley). So our next kitten was named Twolmondeley (Twomley).

Meantime, my sister-in-law flew out from Ohio to bring us her cat, Pudney, that her husband was becoming desperately allergic to. Of course, as important as a good name is a good nickname; his was Steak-and-Pudney-pie.

Our next cat happened to us when my five-year-old son was in the middle of a language obsession, and in the process of committing an entire polyglot dictionary to memory. It was clear that our cat was going to be named "cat" in some language or other. I steered him away from the Rumanian, Pisica, on the theory that their are some names better not hollered out into the night, and suggested that we choose the Finnish word for cat instead (Kissa).

Our next acquisition was a kind of rainbow coalition, black and orange and yellow and brown and white, so she became a Motley. The heavily-pregant alleycat that adopted us was also multi-colored, and she became The Patchwork Girl of Oz. (Unfortunately the obvious nickname is Patches, which is easily the most boring name we have ever given a cat.) However, we were in the middle of reading The Joys of Yiddish when her kittens were born, so they became Farshimmelt and Farblondjet (both Yiddish for extremely bewildered), Potchkeh (playing around) and Mishegoss (a really big mess).

It was terribly hot in our rented house that next summer, and our three poor cats just lay on the floor, with glazed eyes, panting. (I know cats aren't supposed to pant, but nobody ever told them this.) So I told my son we should rename them Torpor, Inertia and Sloth.

Our next kitten could hardly be called Torpor or Sloth. But given the fact that, once set in motion, she was real hard to stop, we called her Inertia. The next year, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, and my son and I treated ourselves to a celebratory orange tiger kitten, to be named after our two favorite Detroit Tigers, Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker. Thus, she became Trammaker (though in view of the total lack of respect she showed her elders and betters, we should perhaps have called her Twitaker).

Our last cat, Nickaninny, was named after a Gordon Korman book (Bugs Potter Live at Nickaninny). An adventurous and mischievous sort, she was known, on occasion, as Nick-nack-paddywhack- throw-the-cat-away.

Of course, no matter what their actual names, they all answered to Jesus Cat (as in Jesus, Cat! what are you doing on top of the refrigerator/under the stove/inside the washing machine!??!)

Well, we do keep losing cats; we're down to one now, and starting to think about kittens again, so we're saving up new cat names for future reference. We have thought about Capsicum--a very hot red pepper (a little goes a long, long way). Or Fur Elise. And should our cat population ever make it up to five, I will be unable to resist a bilingual pun; it will be called Catre Cinq.

Of course if one accepts T.S. Eliot's notion that all cats name themselves a secret, private name, we could also call our next cat Eponymous.

Douglas Adams, in The Deeper Meaning of Liff, uses the word "Sutton" to describe the dark dirt that accumulates on light clothing, and "Cheam" for the chalky light dirt that settles on dark clothing. Given the attractant power of cat hair for clothing (a power that, were it harnessed, would be far stronger than nuclear weapons), a matched set of dark and light kittens would be named Sutton and Cheam.

Of course, other animals are equally fair game for this sort of thing. When I first came across the legal term Res Ipsa (for res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself), I tried to talk my nephew into calling his parrot Res Ipsa.

My son has a simple, dignified, un-nicknameable name. And he is very grateful that I have cats. Very grateful indeed.


*Note to catlovers: other columns devoted to felinity in all its perversity include The Cat in the Book, The Mouse Police, and The Cat's Christmas

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