Near the end of
the third act of King Lear, the old king, the Fool and Edgar stumble out of the
storm on the heath into a farmhouse. Lear, who is now completely out of his
mind, conducts a ghastly travesty of a trial, bringing a gray cat to justice
and pretending it is his daughter. "My tears begin to take his part,"
murmurs Edgar (aside), and there follows what the romantic critics of the 19th
century considered one of the finest examples of Shakespeare's humanity and his
genius in Lear's lines:
The little dogs
Tray, Blanch and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.
The greatness of
the passage is in its simplicity and its unexpectedness: the names of the dogs.
These dogs are not merely dogs, a part of the background, noisy and
obstreperous, but distinct and personalized dogs, and Lear's affection for them
is understood by anyone who ever loved a dog of his own.
Shakespeare had given them names like those that are now given to American show
The little dogs
Foggyfurze Sugar Puss, Temple Bells of Blossom Lea,
And Wee Bit O'Honey of Winki-Poo, see, they bark at me.
These are the
real names of dogs who have figured prominently in modern dog shows, and with
names like that it wouldn't have mattered to Lear whether they barked or not.
Only in the past few years have fancy and bizarre or ridiculous names been
used. They are not found in literature, or in dog shows until around the early
1920s. Names in the past were simple, like that of Argus in the Odyssey, weak
and crippled with age, who still recognized Ulysses when the wanderer at last
reached home. Homer could hardly have called him Robbie's Heavenly Daze (by De
Karlos Dashaway out of Robbie's Kiss of Allah), the proud label of a champion
cocker. The homely old bulldog in Dickens' Oliver Twist, whose blood-red paw
prints reveal that Bill Sikes is a murderer, was named Bull's-Eye, not Mi
Little Wee Wee's Cricket—another name found in a recent dog show. When Scott
put a dog in Guy Mannering he named it Wasp—"Wasp, man! Wow, but he's glad
to see you!"
newspaper account of a best-in-show these days ends with a revelation that in
the privacy of the home the winner is known as Spot or Buster, no matter how
high-toned his registered name may be. This is hard to believe. In simple
decency, where but in the privacy of the home should a dog be called, for
example, Tippy Tiu Tocco of Knollcrest? People who will so affront a pet are
quite capable of rubbing it in: "Good boy, Blithe Arpeggio of Hobby
Ho!" "Fetch the ball, Sharevalpad Call Me Madam!"
Names like those
given to Pullman cars are now registered for all breeds. There is a famous
Dalmatian named Racing Roadster in the Valley; a Boston terrier, Tootsie Oh
Girl; a beagle, To-Bar-To Little Monkey; a basset hound, Siefenjagenheim Lazy
Bones; a fox terrier, Welcome Here and Now.
The New York Times recently opened
a report of an all-breed event in these terms: "Ch. Gay Boy of Geddesburg,
a peppy beagle, proved today to his new owners...that they made a wise purchase
when they acquired him six weeks ago. Moving with his white-tipped tail
pointing straight up, as if to say, 'See, boss, this'll get the attention,' Gay
Boy trotted off with the best-in-show award." Gay Boy of Geddesburg is a
restrained name compared to most these days, but it still reflects the
essential change from the old simplicity and its purpose. There was once a more
meaningful relationship between dogs and their masters and mistresses, and the
names that the dogs bore reflected it. If Ulysses' dog had been named something
like Prince Argo Naughty Boy instead of plain Argus, he wouldn't have
recognized Ulysses at all. He would have been in there eating and drinking with
the suitors. Probably he would have been strutting around with his tail
pointing straight up, as if to say, "See, boss, this'll get the
There was a good
reason why dogs names were originally simple: they had to be words that could
be yelled loudly and that the dog could understand. Fido, which has now
disappeared as a dog's name, was derived from the Latin for faithful, and Ponto
came from the Spanish punta (point). Tray is believed to have come from the
Spanish trae (fetch). The favorite hunting dog of Cheops, about 5,000 years
ago, was named Abakaru, and another Egyptian hunting dog, pictured under the
chair of his master and believed to have been a basenji, was named Xalmes.
Alexander the Great's favorite dog was Perites. A dog wearing a silver collar
was found in the ashes of Herculaneum: his name was Delta. Even the Arabs, who
loved horses and hated dogs and never named them, made one exception—a dog
named Kitmer, who appears in the Koran and who was admitted to Paradise by
In this world or
the next, then, all names of dogs were traditionally terse, functional and
plain. And so are they now for mongrels and dogs named by children. Janice
Paprin, who recently combed through the license applications of the 260,000
licensed dogs in New York City for the American Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals, found that Skippy, Lucky and Butch, in that order, are the
most popular dog names. The nationwide sampling of a Philadelphia dog-food
manufacturer gave Lady and Tiny as the two most popular. Queenie, Lassie,
Trixie, Duchess, Brownie, Rusty, Spot, Ginger, Tippy, Rex, Champ, Rocky, Wolf,
Ace, Frisky, Sparky, Bullet, Cyclone, Candy, Satan, Minx and Mischief are
current favorites among the children-owned mongrel dogs that are licensed.