the naming of cats: six favorites

1. Magnificat was my parents’ first cat, and they liked the name so much, they used it twice: Maggie Mark One and Maggie Mark Two. Maggie Mark Two disappeared into the woods in 1963, one of the worst things ever to happen to my mother, and the name was retired. I never saw properly identified photos of these cats but in my mind they are standard issue tiger cats. Maggie Mark Two may have been the kitten of one of our other cats, in which case she could have been Holstein spotted or tortoiseshell.

All those early names were in-jokes between the parents. The cat of my childhood was Peggy (ca. 1960-1976), short not for Margaret but for Chota Peg, a name my mother said was used by British colonial officers in India to refer to a little drink, like a shot of whisky. How this came to bear on the naming of a Boston Manx cat was never entirely spelled out. Years later I discovered on a BBC Irish language website that the expression might not be originally Hindi as I thought but Irish, something like giota beag. [1]

2. Lilibet/Bett-Bett was another cat my parents had before I was born, and I’ve only seen a snapshot of her, a little tortoiseshell clinging to my mother’s front with all fours and staring back over her shoulder at the photographer. The names suited her and I like the combination of Elizabeth II as a child and Mrs. Aeneas Gunn’s The Little Black Princess [2]. It recalls the Imperious Titled Feline pattern, like cats on my friendslist Princess Arjumand and Madame Euterpova.

3. Digger (ca. 1989-2004) was a mostly dark grey cat with white muzzle and snowshoes, found as a one day old kitten in a lumberyard by my brother. My parents fed him milk from a bottle designed for preemies at four-hour intervals, round the clock, a level of intensive care that my father likes to point out would have resulted in a quarter-million dollar bill if it were for a human in a hospital. The kitten was very weak at first and my mother thought he wasn’t going to make it through the second night. She was afraid to lift the towel over his box to check if he was still alive, and then toward morning she heard him trying to climb out. At that point she decided his name was Digger, after the Australian World War I soldiers who would not give up.

Digger sounds like a burrowing rodent or marsupial and it was a good name, for Digger brought great concentration to whatever he did. I once watched him spend a very long time picking up a ball in his mouth, dropping it in his water bowl, fishing it out with his paw, and then doing it again. When he really wanted to drink, not just play with water, he made us set up the kitchen tap as his fountain, to exacting specifications – the pressure, temperature and position directly over the sink divider had to be just right. He was a deep sleeper and an intimidating opponent in chase-the-string and pounce-on-the-cat-dancer.

Digger was a house cat, as after Maggie Mark Two my mother would not let cats out if they could be persuaded to stay in. “It’s not true that he’s never been outside,” my father said. “He was out for 20 minutes once. He wasn’t impressed.” He also suffered being sneaked into the care facility where my mother spent her last days, and being carried down to the hardware store where my father tried to get Arthur the owner to mix up a batch of Sherwin-Williams in the precise hue and saturation of Digger’s lush violet-grey coat so that he could paint some of his workshop equipment to match his cat. The result inevitably fell short.

4. Digit is one of my favorite Internet celebrities. Everyone who visits Rachael’s blog loves Digit and it’s a great name for a polydactyl cat, better than Thumbs, which is what they called the Boston polydactyl cat who used to sleep in sinks at Random Hall in my student days.

5. Manxy is a tiger/tortoise mix Manx of my brother’s who has absolutely resisted any attempt to give her a less literally descriptive name. She’s unpredictable, sometimes Velcro Love Cat and sometimes Hidey Scaredy Cat, so it’s hard to pick out consistent impressions or personality traits that might suggest a permanent handle. Manxy isn’t a namey name, but it’s not as generic as calling her Cat – and there are people who do call their cats Cat [3] – so it raises the question of what makes a name a name. “Manxy” denotes and connotes, but not very well.

6. Jennifer (ca. 1989-2005), was CZ’s cat and it is the best name for a cat EVER. Most people who give their cats human names give them out-of-fashion names that won´t be needed for referring to people they’re likely to come in contact with. I know cats with names like Olive and Titus and Timothy and Florence and Elli and Sasha and Molly and Winston and Suzy Q and Ava and Nigel. Jennifer on the other hand is a stereotypically popular North American Boomer and post-Boomer human name, like John or Lisa. Your friends and relatives might want to name their kid that (remember that baby-naming book, Beyond Jason and Jennifer), and you’ve already taken it [5]. I find calling a cat Jennifer a radical act – explicitly categorizing the cat as another soul and not a thing, while at the same time making the anthropomorphization disturbingly evident so it can be questioned [4]. Crossing the boundary, or negating it? I think CZ just liked the name and, having grown up with Irish-American naming habits, had no problems with recycling it. [6].

[1] Even for a non-Irish speaker that meaning seems surprisingly logical given such cognates as chose (Fr), chut-chut (Ru), juttu (Fi) and pequeño (Sp), piccolo (It), pikku (Fi) – the Finnish words obviously here treated as possible IE loanwords.

[2] Which I had my tutorial students in Finland read, bracketed with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mary Grant Bruce’s A Little Bush Maid, on the premise that before they reached the advanced options on postcolonialism, they needed a more visceral idea of what racism/colonialism did to people than their privileged social democratic race-free experience, or my experience either, could give them.

[3] My father’s current cat is JFK, standing for Jolly Fine Kat. He is usually addressed as Jay though. His previous family, who I’m told were British-African and adopted him out rather than put him through quarantine when they moved back to London, called him Igbo.

[4] Mind you, D, my brother’s friend who’s lived with us, named his child Sophie, the name of the Boston Manx polydactyl cat of my youth, and is fine with the idea of having named his kid after the cat. “I loved that cat,” he says. We’re now lobbying him to name his next child Digger.

[5] While we’re talking about radical naming, I must laud K’s decision to call her PhD simply Icelandic Nicknames rather than Familiarity and Distinctiveness: Problems of Interpellation in Contemporary Icelandic Onomastics. Take that, obfuscation factory! If I republish my PhD, I’m definitely calling it The Language of National Holidays and having done with it.

[6] vs. Jews, who feel it’s bad luck to name for the living. In my mother’s family (dominantly Irish-Australian) for a time every male was named Jim, while in my father’s family I can’t find any repeats except two Sarahs where one married in. Incidentally, I am absolutely grooving on all the name discussion in Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, which I’m reading right now.

Written in response to someone on LJ and newly unhidden, 2020.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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