A few days ago, when I was entering an apartment building, I spotted a pretty tortoise shell cat sunning itself on the steps.
“What’s his name?” I asked the building watchman interestedly.
After a little silence, the watchman replied ‘Jok”, rolling his tongue over the unfamiliar syllables. I immediately clicked my fingers, and called out to the cat by this name. But not even by a twitch of his whiskers did the little creature indicate that he recognized this name. As the watchman shrugged apologetically, I entered the building with a rueful smile.
When parents name a child, they are careful to choose a name that has a significant meaning, is easy to spell or pronounce, or matches with the child’s astrological birth star. However, when we get a pet, we don’t have to worry about these considerations, and so, most people let their imagination run wild, and give a new pet an interesting and exotic name guaranteed to be a conversation starter. But what most people do not realize is that their pet’s name is also going to be mispronounced by domestic servants and helps, traders, watchmen, dhobis, et al, and this sometimes has amusing results.
Years ago, we owned a large dalmation named Pongo. Pongo was a friendly dog, but he took an instant dislike to a stout black rottweiler that used to stroll past our home every evening when he was out walking with his attendant. The mere sight of this dog was enough to send Pongo into paroxysms of rage, and it was amusing to watch Pongo’s fury grow whenever the dog came into view. One day, we asked the dog’s attendant what his name was. ‘Bunsee,’ he replied proudly. When we called the dog by this name, he immediately responded to it, and in time, we became friends with the dog. Pongo also learnt the dog’s name, and if it was uttered, even in the dead of the night, it elicited an angry and unfriendly growl from deep within his throat. Several months after we had first made Bunsee’s acquaintance, we met him one evening, accompanied, for a change, by his owners. We greeted the dog enthusiastically as usual, as his family stood by, watching. Then, as we got talking, they told us gently that their dog’s name was ‘Bouncy’!
When I was a teenager living in Chennai, Tamilnad, I gave a new puppy I had just got, the short (and rather cute, I thought) name, ‘Sammy.’ Alas! I quickly found that this was a rather unhappy choice of name – all the local people, including our household helps, pronounced the puppy’s name as ‘saami’ which in Tamil, was a term of respect used for a religious teacher or elder. This name became particularly inappropriate as Sammy, a mongrel of indeterminate breed, grew up to be a boisterous, often ill-mannered, and at times, ferocious dog given to hiding behind our gatepost so that he could pounce on unsuspecting visitors.
When my grand-daughter Apsara was about six months old, my daughter Sanjana rescued a small bedraggled pup from the road, and gave her a forever home. Since the naughty little pup kept running off with the baby’s diapers (the well known brand Huggies) she was named Huggy. The puppy grew up to be a rather large pet, but the cook, gardener, and other locals who interact with her daily, seem to have swallowed the ‘H’ in her name, for I hear them calling her cheerily as ‘Ugh-ee!’ One of Huggy’s many dog friends is a huge and regal German shepherd who lives in a neighbouring street. When Sanjana asked the help who walks the dog what the animal’s name was, she was informed that it goes by the monicker ‘Nike’. Sanjana assumed that this name was inspired by the iconic American sportswear company that takes its name from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. She and Apsara continued to hail the magnificent dog by this name, till one day, when they met him walking with his owner. The lady was astonished to hear her dog being called Nike – her dog’s name, she explained politely, was inspired by a Russian name – he was called Nicolai!
So now, I think that when I see that tortoiseshell cat again, I won’t call him Jock, Jack, or even Joke like I did the last time. I’ll try a French name – perhaps the little cat is called Jacques?