The Trauma of Cat Naming

What you call your pet matters, but only to you

In college I went through all sorts of pretentious intellectual phases, which happens when you’re 18, think you’re deep and are stuck at an isolated liberal arts school with a lot of weed. One of those phases was about names, and it was spurred by the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. In his study Language and Myth, he wrote:

“The notion that name and essence bear a necessary and internal relation to each other, that the name does not merely denote but actually in the essence of its object, that the potency of the real thing as contained in the name—that is one of the fundamental assumptions of the mythmaking consciousness itself.”

Cassirer, because he was a great philosopher, went on to challenge that notion. Me? I got stuck there. Our names and our selves are connected—necessarily? Shit. I better be more careful.

At the time, I was grieving for a pet rat named Scooter. He wasn’t particularly speedy. The name had no meaning. He died quickly, ignominiously, with a crappy name. I vowed to never let it happen again … and then I named my chihuahua Hannah. I’m kind of hopeless.

Last week I got a kitten. Here’s what she looks like:

As you can see, her looks don’t suggest any name in particular. If she were all black, I could call her Midnight or Coal or Depression. If she were all white, she could be Cotton or Ping-Pong. She does look like she’s wearing eyeliner, but that doesn’t help. Who was famous for wearing eyeliner? Cleopatra and Tammy Faye Bakker? No thanks.

An office mate suggested some Japanese names that were cool but not connected to the kitten’s essence. My boyfriend gave me some Italian names that would be cute, but I don’t speak Italian. Our website was originally a bilingual (English/Spanish) print magazine, so a Spanish-language name seemed a solid option. But which one?

I kept trying to come up with names that related to the kitten’s personality (or cat-onality), but kittens aren’t exactly profiles in singularity. This kitten loved eating pieces of a discarded croissant, but was that distinctive? She loved chicken too. And cat food. And the Cat Dancer toy. And my keychain. And being tickled on her nose. And sliding on the hardwood floors. And throwing up on the couch. What did it all mean?

One night I dreamt I named the kitten “Pepper” and it was a stroke of genius. In the morning, it was less thrilling.

Resolution came yesterday. The kitten and I were on the couch. She stretched her paw out, did that adorable kneading thing, and curled her toes around my finger. Then she wrapped her other paw around my arm and fell asleep. Looking at her little face twitch while she slept, I thought: “Great. Another cat who’s going to take over my life. I’m going to rue the day we met.” And there was the name: Rue!

I’ve sinced decided to change the spelling to Roo, but the kitten has no idea. For all she knows, her name is Ernst. Which, now that I think about it, is kind of cute …