Essay :: Names: Some secret, some not

The foster dog looks at The Husband


I have been caring for a foster dog for five weeks and I have not given him any name, even a temporary one on which we all can hang our future hopes for him. Instead, I have called him “Bub” and “Junior” and “the baby” and “darling” and “you.” When I croon to him, the foster dog has heard himself named “sweetie” and “good boy” and “good dog” in the dulcet sing-song I use with babies and young dogs. And when the foster dog requires correction, my stentorian tones linger on “mister” and “sir” and “buddy” — as in “Buddy, you had better leave that power strip alone or we’ll all get a shock today.” and “Sir! Compose yourself.”

In these five weeks, I have called the foster dog so many random things that he does not know when he is being called except that I routinely clap my hand twice across my breastbone and whistle to bring him in from the darkness at the edges of the yard. When he races on three legs from out of the shadows of the loquat trees, I drop to my heels to catch him in my arms and call him “good dog” and “sweet baby” and “love.” While he sighs and presses into my shoulder, I massage his cheeks with the palms of my hands in the circle of brightness from the security light by the back door. And there it is: I regret another day in which I have not named him.


I myself have two first names—a public name and a private name. Nearly four decades ago, my mother asked her mother to drive her to municipal libraries in three cities to look for names for the spark she carried between her small hips. It was my grandmother who told me this story first—with an equal amount of amusement and wonder and respect—because she, herself, would not have gone to any wild trouble over a name—names came to you, she believed, not you to them. You did not, as my grandmother put it “hunt them down” or “track a name to the near-ends of the earth.” But this is exactly what my mother did when she was six months pregnant and beginning to show a little, even when she wore her car coat.

Put another way, my mother didn’t require someone else to climb over the fence of the witch’s garden patch next door to settle her craving for green spring peas like the pregnant woman in the fairy tale. She herself launched over that garden wall with a leg up from my grandmother. Only my mother knew what she was craving, and only she could find it. And woe be to any witch who threatened my mother —she was the hero on a quest. Everybody knows you don’t mess with the hero of the story. You drive them to the library to hunt for names, or you get out of the way.

My mother, the hunter. My mother, the hero. My mother, the sorceress. My mother, who gave me two first names, one secret, one not.

To know my true name is to conjure me on the spot.


In fairy tales, one’s name is the source of great power. Think of the hapless promise the terrified miller’s daughter makes to an opportunistic imp when she must spin straw into gold, or die. The imp can fix these matters if the miller’s daughter will promise him her future first child. She agrees, tout suite. True to all fairy tales, there is a twist to the promise: Should she can somehow discover the imp’s true name before he claims the child, he must forfeit her firstborn. Straw becomes gold; she lives to marry the king. When the imp arrives a year later to take her newborn child, it is the wind that finally saves the queen by carrying the imp’s name across the mountains. At the last minute, when the imp is about to lay hands on the infant, the former miller’s daughter calls him by name—Rumpelstiltskin!

Shocked, he blips out of existence. End of story.

Or is it? What has history taught us about names and naming that’s any different than the terror experienced by Rumpelstiltskin when the miller’s daughter speaks his true name? It’s the same old story, rewritten so the broken promise of the queen in the third act will appear gilded and heroic. But still: A broken promise is a broken promise. But still: The queen named names. But still: There is no Rumplestiltskin.


We don’t speak our names to strangers: We give them our names. Our names are also our surest currency: We can put our name behind a venture; we can let someone work under our name to get ahead in business. That’s assuming we have a good name to start with—meaning an acquired set of respected traits that people imagine when one’s name is conjured in conversation. For bad or for good, someone can act in your name because that’s the name of the game, but if your name is mud you may have to clear your name. Even so, your name may remain tarnished beyond recognition.

Regardless, I answer to the name Courtenay. But I am also called ________, which means almost no one is on a first-name basis with me.

Besides, I will probably not catch your name for the first six times I hear it. It’s not that I’m rude—I’m just terrible at names.


Names are the architecture on which we build the self. Names are the conqueror’s last word on an occupied space. Names lift and fall and bury and rise at an equal rate at which we speak those names aloud. Some names are magic. Some names are mysteries. Some names are crystalline structures that blow down at the first breath. Some things are felt to be so terrible are named ‘unnameable.’ Some names can never tbe spoken aloud or one will be seen as using that name in vain—or worse.

A name is a tailor-made burden. A name is the bright electric torch that illumines our way through everyday darkness. A name is a stamp and a trademark and a wish. A name is what we use to recall ourselves to ourselves long after the ones who named us have left the room. Sometimes we are named after someone and must live up to that name. Sometimes our names are our own to make or to destroy.

When we marry and take someone else’s name, we can even disappear.

There is no greater sleight-of-hand than a name.


I am standing in darkness; the foster dog hops along the fence line, bending the branches of the loquat trees as he goes. His paralyzed foot drags across the dead leaves, which then crackle and pop. In a few weeks, the cicadas will wake from their seven-year sleep and rise from the ground to sing in chorus during the watches of the night. It’s time to go inside. I thump my breastbone and whistle out to the dog. I can hear him turning around beneath the trees, considering my call. I thump my breastbone again and whistle twice: I am the only one outside tonight.

He turns to run to me; my hands are open. He runs; I will catch him in my arms.

Every dog deserves a name.

7 thoughts on “Essay :: Names: Some secret, some not”

  1. Dogs deserve a name and their day. Wonderful bit of prose…filled with jump starters for my own oh so off-beat imagination, but I so enjoyed the quick progression in the chapter format. But my dear Miss Bluebird. It’s all about the content. Well delivered you faithful steward of the written word. Missed you at Shakespeare’s B-Bash…he asked about you, but then the cops came in….sigh.
    In any event, time for me to return to the dark side of the moon for a while longer. Would appreciate it if you think a good karmic thought and send it my way…my name is Dan. I am your friend in the ethosphere. I am a lucky man.

  2. Damn you, I’ve got such a lump in my throat. You say The Dog is a foster dog – does that mean you will give him up, /have/ to give him up? Or can you decide to keep him? If you can’t keep him then perhaps not naming him is your subconscious’ way of distancing yourself from the hurt to come… coz you love him already, I can see that. Sadly I think he loves you too.

    I can’t think of a name but I do have a story. A few years back, I went to my local vet to get some flea stuff for our two dogs. I left with a needy five week old kitten. I named her Pippi. Despite oodles of love she remained terribly needy so before having her spayed, I decided to let her have a litter. She duly took up residence in my bathroom and had four tiny kittens.

    Knowing I’d have to give them away, I didn’t name the kittens for weeks. I even tried not to fall in love with them, but my beloved old dog had no such compunctions. He adored those kittens from the word go, and Pippi trusted him with them.

    To cut a long story short, I eventually named those kittens because their personalities demanded it. And then…I kept them all. Names are immensely power things.-hugs-

    1. I love, love, love, love your cat story, Meeka. You have a heart as big as the sky!

      And you are so insightful! On some level, I was aware that I was stumbling to name the foster dog because I didn’t want to get too attached, but you really brought this home for me with your comment. Meanwhile, I kept trying to fake myself out and name him anyway because you can’t really train a dog properly without giving him a name, right?

      My reason for not wanting to adopt Abelard has to do with a rule that I’ve maintained for all of my adult life.

      The rule is: I never own any more dogs than I can afford to take to an emergency veterinary hospital at the same time. I’m not one to want to make a King Solomon’s choice about who gets emergency care and who doesn’t.

      Money is rather tight around our house right now and will be tight for a few years yet with The H. is at uni, so adopting Abelard might not be the smartest choice. However, he such an incredible dog and so amazing that I’m willing to try to hustle and pick up additional work in order to make him a permanent member of the family.

      But there is a secondary issue— my two dogs are very poorly socially trained—this is my fault. (Abelard has excellent social skills.) I would have to try to introduce the dogs to one another slowly to see if they could get along. Right now we keep the dogs on and separate spaces and on separate routines. That means I’m doing a lot of running around.

      Next week, I am going to try to see if I can slowly integrate Abelard into the household a little bit more. I’m going to do this one dog at a time. I am well aware that this may not work out. And if that’s the case – I am actually certain he is going to find an amazing home— he is an amazing dog and he deserves to be with a loving family that’s set up to take him in. Either way, he’s going to have a good life, and that’s the whole point here.

      I hadn’t even considered adopting Abelard myself as an option and till after I wrote this post and you wrote this particular comment. Thank you, Meeks!

    2. Trying hard not to influence your decision but…. we’ve always found the inside of the car to be a great neutral zone. If your dogs travel with you a lot then it won’t work [ours always got car sick so trips were few and far between].

      Please keep posting about Abelard, and the rest of you as well!

  3. I am not a pet person since I never had a pet. So can’t respond to pet naming experiences.

    I do have 2 names -1 in English and other is Chinese. The Chinese name is different from English. It sounds vaguely the same but pronounced with a Cantonese lilt. The Chinese names means “Precious” or “Highly Treasured”. It goes well, with a very popular Chinese female traditional name which translates as “Orchid”. The same middle name was given all the girls in our family.

    There is a Chinese ideogram for my name.

    It is my mother who tends to use my Chinese name occasionally. I am the eldest of 6 –so you can guess why I was given that lst name.

Hey there, Cupcake! How are ya?

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