Nom de Grrr – Frank McNally on the rules of dog-naming in France
An Irishman’s Diary
France’s regulations on dog-naming decree that all pure-breds registered in any given year must have names starting with the same letter. Photograph: Getty Images
Language aside, it’s amazing what you can learn while studying languages. I was brushing up on my French one night recently, for example, with an app that uses short documentaries as a teaching tool. And so it was that I heard for the first time about France’s regulations on dog-naming.
There really are such things and they decree that all pure-breds registered in any given year must have names starting with the same letter.
This is an S-year, so if you’re registering a posh Parisian poodle now, it has to be called something like Stravinsky, or Saint-Germain, or Sid (unlikely).
Last year, because the arrangement is alphabetical, it had to be Romeo, or Renée, or Rabelais.
Designed to help officials keep track and prevent in-breeding, the system goes back to 1885, except that then it was based on the dog’s birth-year. People were often slow to register, however, causing confusion. Since 1926, to simplify things, it’s the date of registration that decides.
Further refinements have included the banning of certain supposedly difficult first initials – K, Q, W, X, Y, and Z – reducing the cycle to 20 years before it repeats itself. The last in the current series, therefore, will be the V (and Olympic) year of 2024.
This reminds me that, in a French park 10 or 15 years ago, I was fascinated by a young woman with a large boisterous dog named “Virgule”. I knew this meant “Comma” and wondered why anyone would call a pet after a punctuation mark. It was doubly odd because, in her efforts to control him, she kept having to use an exclamation mark after the comma (“Virgule!”). But of course, with the extravagantly rolled R, the word sounded so much better in French.
Anyway, although I can’t for the life of me remember what breed it was, I now find myself in the odd position of knowing when that dog was born, or at least registered: 2004, the last V-year. More usefully, I may also have gained an insight into the hitherto mysterious name of one of literature’s more famous cats. Because of course France has a similar system for pedigree cat-naming.
Whether Ernest Hemingway’s “F Puss” was pure-bred, I’m not sure. In any case, the writer considered him sufficiently trustworthy to be used as a childminder for “Bumby” (aka Patrick, Hemingway’s first-born son), as recalled in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast: “There were people who said it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby [but] F Puss lay beside Bumby in the tall cage bed and watched the door with his big yellow eyes, and would let no one come near him when we were out and Marie, the femme de ménage, had to be away. There was no need for baby-sitters. F Puss was the baby-sitter.”
Maybe there were other reasons for the name: a man who would employ a cat as child-minder and guard-dog might have his own, unique rationale for such things. But apparently, nowadays at least, people can and do circumvent the pet-naming rules by simply appending the official letter to the front. Even if your cat or dog has one of the banned initials, as in Xenophon or Zeus, you can register it as “R-Xenophon” or “S-Zeus” – et voilà, you have triumphed over the system.
On the other hand, some choose to follow the rules even when not required. President Macron is one. His dog, adopted from a rescue shelter, is a loveable mongrel (or as the alleged language of diplomacy translates that word, “bâtard”), with no pedigree to register. Also, it already had a name, Marin. But when it became the presidential mutt in 2017, an N-year, Macron renamed it Nemo.
The unfortunate echo of one of its predecessors – Jacques Chirac’s Sumo – was surely unintended. A Maltese terrier, Sumo remains a cautionary tale (or tail) for political dogs in France. If anything, he may have been too well bred because after his time in the Élysée Palace, he struggled with the return to civilian life.
According to a 2009 article in Psychology Today, quoting Madame Chirac, Sumo suffered “severe depression” after downsizing to a luxury apartment. He missed having a large garden to run around. As a result, he took to biting the ex-president, so badly on one occasion that it required hospital treatment (for the ex-president, I mean, not the dog).
In less enlightened times, whatever about his letter, Sumo’s number might have been up then. Happily, he escaped the guillotine.
Unless, that is, somebody was engaging in euphemism when it was reported that the terrier had been “sent away to live on a farm”.