Copyright, 1994, 2000 Sarah Hartwell

One of my cats is large, white and fluffy and is called Sheep. Well actually, she's called Cindy but mostly she gets called Sheep. Not that this makes any difference to Cindy who doesn't answer to either name unless food is involved. My friend Kate came to visit us one weekend and saw a large, fluffy white thing on the back lawn. "Ooh look - sheep!" said Kate. Kate was 39 years old at the time, but in her defence she's the daughter of a sheep farmer and automatically identifies all fluffy white things seen against a backdrop of grass as sheep.

The naming of cats, according to T S Eliot, is a difficult matter. A cat needs three names - the name that the family use, a peculiar and more dignified name that never belongs to more than one cat and a name that no human research will ever discover - the name upon which the cat himself will spend long hours meditating. It also needs a nickname, usually one which is bestowed upon it by someone other than its owner. Eliot sort of forgot this essential fact of cat husbandry.

I am a volunteer at a cat shelter and one of the more mentally strenuous duties is to find names for all those cats. You work through books of cat names and baby names (twice), exhaust the possibilities of flower names (courtesy of a seed catalogue) and all of the poets (some yield enough names for a whole litter e.g. Peter Bysshe Shelley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and most Shakespeare and Dickens characters are already taken (unless indecent sounding). The vet vetoes anything out of Tolkein and the names of Russian composers due to spelling and pronunciation difficulties. Then some friend comes along, spots a cat and says "Oooh! Sheep!" and the name sticks. Except for a couple of problems - the name has stuck to your cat who already had a perfectly good name (which it never answered to) and none of the shelter kittens (who need names) look like sheep.

My vet also had a tendency to nickname some of my cats. Scrapper had a perfectly good workaday name which aptly described his physical characteristics - or in his case - what was left of his physical characteristics after 10 years of living rough. Not only was his name perfectly suitable, he even answered to it which is a bit of a bonus since normally only dogs will answer when you call while cats will take a message and get back to you if they remember. He went into the surgery as Scrapper. During a mild altercation with the vet, he came out of the surgery called 'Wozzack' (it's a mild insult, pronounced 'wozz-ick") or to be more precise 'C'm 'ere wozzack'. From that day on, he answered to both Scrapper and 'c'm 'ere wozzack'.

This is a normal phenomenon as far as cat-lovers are concerned. No, not altercations with vets (though that's probably pretty normal too), the spontaneous nicknaming of cats, usually by someone other than the owner.

Author Terry Pratchett (P'Terry to his fans, showing that its not only cats who acquire nicknames) helpfully suggests that a cat has a variety of different names for a variety of occasions. For example, there's the name used when you tread on it and a very different name for when it is the only animal able to help enquiries pertaining to a pungent puddle on the carpet. It has further names for when the children are giving it a third degree cuddle and for when it causes major catastrophes. While it may initially 'look like a Winifred', as the years go by it finds itself being called 'Meepo' or 'Ratbag'. According to Pratchett, in his book 'The Unadulterated Cat', Vincent Mountjoy Froufrou Poundstretcher IV soon ends up as 'Mumthere'ssomethingORRIBLEunderthebed'! Never, says Pratchett, give a cat a name you wouldn't mind shouting out in a strained, worried voice around midnight.

How many cats are actually called by their given names a year or two later? Well okay, they are called by their given names during vet check-ups because that's the name on the computer (even if you do have to rack your brains to remember it yourself) unless of course the vet himself re-christens it after a mild altercation.

They soon acquire nicknames. One day you absent-mindedly call your cat 'Scruffpot' after it brings half the wilderness home in its fur and before you know it, the name has stuck (the same happened to a colleague of mine. One day I jokingly called him Scruff because he came to work unshaven. Next thing we know, most of the workforce calls him Scruff and it's my fault. Nowadays he even answers to Scruff - and he's the manager!) .

Pratchett was right. Nicknames just happen. Fatso or Scruffbag are highly descriptive of the gourmet (or gourmand) or the beaten up cat in your life. Dribbles probably stuck after Pussywillow's dental operation. Precious, Angel and Baby describe that special cat-human bond (Oi-you-b*st*rd also describes the cat-human bond, but not in quite the same way). A pair of pesky kittens who originally sported names bigger than themselves i.e. Marmaduke and Montgomery, somehow got re-christened Trouble and Pest in a Freudian slip of the tongue.

We can spend ages deliberating over a suitable name for our new friend, or becoming acquainted with the name it arrived with when you adopted it. Students of quantum mechanics call their cats Schrodinger or Heisenberg while car mechanics call their cats Castrol or Sparky. The name has to fit in with the furniture as well as suiting the cat. I started off with Scrapper and Kitty - two no-nonsense cat names. Then, due to circumstances beyond my control (it's a woman thing, okay?) I ended up with a cat for whom the only suitable name was Aphrodite. Scrapper, Kitty and Aphrodite - spot the odd one out. Scrapper, Kitty and Affy sounded much better.

Whatever name your cat starts off with, one day that carefully considered, descriptive or meaningful name will be superseded by some upstart spur of the moment nickname like Rugtiddler. Sometimes, our cats entirely lose their original names. One of my first cats, Keta, was a beautiful tabby named after the pattern on Keta Salmon, but became plain old 'Kitty' (even at the vets). 'That-motley-coloured-stray-cat-is-begging-for-food-again' became 'Motley' when she moved in permanently and now she's just 'Smots'.

Even worse, some topical names may be politically correct when the cat is named but fall out of favour. 'Timoshenko' was named after a Russian war hero, but became 'Timmy' when his Russian name became unfashionable. Oddly enough, the name of a certain 20th Century dictator (the one with the moustache) has never become unfashionable for cats with over-developed predatory skills. Cats respond best to short names and longer names soon get shortened to one or two easily shouted syllables derived from the cat's original name. Or then again, the one or two easily shouted syllables may be derived from some completely unrelated phrase which was employed during the great 'pungent puddle on the pillow' episode.

There are those who believe that a cat's name influences its character. A nervous outdoor-living cat known as One-ear became much friendlier when renamed Pretty-ear. The owner probably gave off more positive signals when calling out Pretty-ear and the cat responded to the changed tone of voice rather than the changed name. And those who character or appearance influences their nicknames - not for nothing are some of my oldest cats nicknamed Methuselah. My parents always referred to Kitty-II as 'clockwork cat' because in later life, Kitty-II's forelegs became rather stiff.

During their lifetimes, cats may acquire a series of nicknames which they grow out of. I took on a beautiful but unhandleable semi-wild kitten. After calling her 'ginger-thing' for 3 days while she remained firmly out of reach under the bed, I opted for 'Aphrodite' after the beautiful but out-of-reach goddess of love and beauty. It was rather apt when faced with a very pretty, but totally untouchable, kitten. She was later known as 'Fizzy Orange Cat' because she fizzed when picked up (she may well have fizzed and exploded if shaken, but we didn't intend to try that).

As a kitten, her tail was fluffy and squirrel-like so she quickly became Squitten (Squirrel-kitten). Squittens, however, grow up into Squats (Squirrel-cats). Aphrodite was too cumbersome for yelling out at midnight so it was shortened to Affy; she then became Daffy Affy as she mellowed from a spitfire into a rotund cuddle-puss. She happily responded to all of these names and knew that the disapproving 'Aphrodite' noise means it's time to lie low for a while. Nowadays there is, alas, a sad patch in the garden that will be forever Affy and which doesn't answer to any of those names.

Some nicknames stick and some are temporary like Mousebane or Toe-rag. A cat-shelter resident cat with a chronic snuffles was officially named Max, but soon became Hissing Sid (after a character in a song) and Sid Snot (after a Kenny Everett punk character). A road accident victim originally had a long and impressive name, but became Tripod after having a leg amputated. Even the owner has to refer to the vaccination certificate to remember the cat's original name!

So Cindy is regularly called 'Sheep' and is not suffering from any identity crises or neuroses. Sometimes she is addressed by her full microchip number, much to the astonishment of the vet, who probably is suffering from neurosis because he isn't used to his clients memorizing their pets' microchip numbers. Sappho became 'Fufflepuss' because she made those noises while washing. At least that was her nickname until Sheila visited and noticed a very laid back and fluffy cat occupying the lion's share of the sofa, from which time forward Sappho was known to her friends as 'Cushion'. Either I have the oddest friends or my cats are the sort which attract nicknames a bit like magnets attract iron filings.

Queenie, quite naturally became 'her majesty' or 'your majesty' depending on whether she was being talked about or talked to. For a cat who liked to rule large areas of the bed, it was a very apt name. Sadly she has now abdicated to the throne in the sky leaving me with a Sheep and a Smots. So, while the naming of cats is a matter for serious thought, nicknames tend to be spur-of-the-moment affairs - but they do tend to stick!

Cindy now has a number of other nicknames bestowed on her by other friends and family members. She is frightened of strange people and despite my parents' best efforts, she hides from them. Hence she is known to them as "The Invisible Cat". Friend Doug, who is a regular enough presence to have gained her trust, calls her the "Little White Cloud" or "Puffball" because she's white and fluffy. Friend Dr Andy (who won her over by ignoring her until she couldn't stand being ignored any longer) calls her "Secret Evil Overlord's Cat" because she's (mostly) the right colour and fluffiness to sit on a super-villain's lap and help aforementioned super villain press the big red button which launches the super-top-secret weapon.

Footnote 2003

I have been asked to place this footnote by a computer geek friend. Traditional geek names for cats are apparently "cat" (Unix command to get a directory listing), "five" (reference to Cat 5 cables used in PC networking) and "Script" as in "Script Kitty" (a reference to certain types of programmer). Also acceptable are "perl", "Java" and the names of certain programming languages such as Pascal, Coral or Ada.

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