Since the Horace episode, when the Colissimo parcels delivery service exhorted me to name the parcel I was expecting before they would let me be privy to its whereabouts, I have been thinking quite a lot about names. There was a time when names were quite straightforward; there was the Bible for Protestants and the saints’ calendar for Catholics.
Times though have changed, and it is now permissible to burden a child with any assortment of consonants and vowels that sound attractive or at least original to someone’s ear, the only hard and fast rule being that you must use the Roman alphabet.
When I was in the maternity hospital with my first child, there was a rather surreal episode when the official from the town hall came round to register the new babies. The girl I shared a room with was Chinese origin and didn’t speak any French. The whole family was brought in to get the baby’s name sorted out. The official explained to one of the female family members who was delegated as spokeswoman, that he needed to know the child’s name. The baby’s auntie told him—a name about three minutes long in Chinese. He shook his head and asked her to write it down. She did. In Chinese. He asked her to write it in French. After a long time and a group effort, she produced the three-minute long name in Roman letters. The official wanted to know where the first names ended and the family name began. Nobody understood what he meant. There was another long confabulation after which another name was added at the beginning, that the proud father pronounced with a beaming smile, “Gwendolyn”.
Gwendolyn struck me as a rather off beat name for a child who was going to be brought up in an exclusively Chinese-speaking household, but the official from the town hall thought it was a splendid name. To my mind, Horace is a perfectly reasonable name for a cat that is, let’s be honest, horrible. I’ve known of cats called Maureen and Desmond, Mickey and Caledonia, and dogs called Rosie, Myrtle, and Jason. All perfectly honourable names for pets and people.
In France though, people don’t usually give their pets names like…names. They call them after edibles : Chocolate, Liquorice, Nougat, Cinnamon and Cookie. I even know a dog called Sandwich. There are an awful lot of dogs with names that supposedly reflect their character that translate roughly as Yob or Hooligan, Villain or Crook. A brown dog of our acquaintance bought as a Dachshund but which has grown four normal length legs is called, appropriately enough, Joker. There are a lot of very strange names around too: next door has a tomcat called Isis, Finbar has a friend called Virus, and there’s one that he avoids called Tonsillitis. A friend has a new puppy called Lampshade (The breeder chose it, and my friend hasn’t thought it weird enough to change), and we also know a Golden Retriever called Cube, a rather sad and inappropriate name in my opinion.
The names we have given our own animals, of course are eminently suitable. Jackson, the Siamese, Finbar the dog, Branwell and Raymond the tabby cats, and Trixie who is unclassifiable and has never really qualified for a normal name. The Little Cat is just that. However, many people consider pets’ names that fall outside the Biscuit and Goulash category to be extraordinary. When I wanted to change a password for Internet access from a string of letters and digits to something more manageable, I tried to use Raymond. It wouldn’t work and I couldn’t reset it, so I had to go through an operator. She asked me for the password that wouldn’t work. I told her, Raymond. There was a distinct hesitation.
Operator: Raymond ?
Me: That’s right.
Operator: Most people use the name of a pet, not a…person.
Me: Raymond is the cat’s name.
Operator: You called your cat Raymond?
Me: That’s right. Is that a problem?
Third hesitation followed by a sigh.
Operator: No, you can call your cat what you like, I suppose. It’s just…I have an uncle called Raymond.
I was glad I hadn’t asked to use Branwell.