What’s In A Name?

September 9, 2011

Some scientists in the UK discovered that cows that have names give more milk than cows without names. If you’re wondering why scientists were studying this in the first place I hope you’ll remember that there’s no such thing as useless knowledge, and sometimes the most improbable research can have unexpected benefits. Remember: Pavlov was studying digestive enzymes when he noticed not only that his dogs started drooling when they heard the footsteps of the lab assistant who brought them supper but that his lab assistants started drooling whenever Olga the office secretary walked by. There’s even an award for improbable research, the Ig Nobel Prize, which the researchers who made the discovery about cows won back in 2009. Yes, I’m a little behind, but I assume their research is still relevant today, just as Pavlov’s is, since it’s the basis for all ads for men’s body spray, but that’s another story.

Actually what I’d like to know-and what I’d consider truly award-worthy-is how the cows know they have names. Cows aren’t exactly the smartest creatures around. Let’s face it: the most use a cow brain gets is when it’s sliced, fried, and served on a bun at the Indiana state fair. They’re certainly not as smart as, say, the average housecat, even though they produce better tasting milk. Maybe that’s why cows are easier to name. They all have names like Bessie and Flossie and Olga, whereas the naming of cats is a difficult matter, at least according to T.S. Eliot, whose nickname was Old Possum because of his habit of running out in the street and fainting in front of cars. What difference could a name possibly make? And could different names make a difference? William Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but with a name like William Shakespeare he could afford to say that. Would we still be reading his plays if he’d been named Shumley Q. Dimwither? Maybe farmers who name their cows also give their cows more attention, which would make sense. Even though we’re talking about animals that make pet rocks seem brilliant cows that get more attention probably would give more milk.

And dairy cows especially must feel a sense of relief that they’re part of the family, especially when the farmer decides to go out and grill a few steaks. Surely he wouldn’t grill one of the family, in spite of what he says whenever Junior brings the tractor back late with an almost empty gas tank. And for the farmers too naming their cows must give them a sense of connection to their animals, a feeling that, by making that connection, the cows will be more reliable. I wonder if there’s a similar principle at work in the way we sometimes name non-living things, like ships. I’ve thought that possibly the tradition of naming ships goes back to the days when ocean travel was almost as dangerous as the Santa Monica freeway at rush hour, when sailors knew whenever they set out there was a pretty good chance they’d never come back. I think they’d named a ship as a way of making the ship itself a part of the crew, so they could talk to it during stressful times and ask it to bring them-and itself-home safely. And maybe they typically named the ships after women as a way of remembering their wives back home, even though it seems like in those days a lot of sailors went to sea to get away from their wives, but that’s another story. And while the right name could be reassuring I think the wrong name could spell disaster. You may be familiar with Gericault’s famous painting of the raft laden with survivors of the Medusa shipwreck. I think naming a ship Medusa in the first place was just asking for trouble. And let’s not forget Columbus’s fourth ship, the Sin Prudencia, which never made it to the Americas because it fell over the edge.

I used to have a friend who named her car Fritz, because it was always on the fritz, although I think by giving it that name she was just encouraging it to spend even more time in the repair shop. The only car-related name that was worse was the American Motor Company’s decision to make a car they called the Gremlin. They might as well have called it the We’re Filing For Bankruptcy, even though they produced Gremlins for eight years. Another friend of mine, from high school, used to spend a lot of time trying to decide on the perfect car to fit each individual. Our basketball coach, for instance, he thought should drive a station wagon painted to look like a muscle car, while the French teacher should drive a Citroen. Not because she was French, but because her classes never went anywhere. Anyway, he always thought I should drive a Gremlin. I don’t know why he thought this, but I admit the idea of driving a car named after a small, destructive imp appealed to me. Unfortunately I’ve never had a chance to own a Gremlin. When I was sixteen my parents did buy a car for me to practice driving. It was a Mercury, which was appropriate because prolonged exposure to this car would drive you crazy. I never did get to drive it myself. They lent it to a friend of theirs who-this is absolutely true-drove it somewhere, parked it, and was walking away from it when the engine burst into flames. I’m a little sad that I never did get to give it a name.

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