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Original Issue

What to Call Him?

John or Joe if he's a boy, but if he has four legs and runs, you can have a proper peck of trouble picking a proper name

If you have ever had trouble naming a child, you should have seen the pained and puzzled faces at a recent family conference at our house. We had to find names for three race horses, two boys and a girl.

With human triplets, if all else fails, you can name the boys John and Joseph and the girl Mary. With baby horses there are no old standbys at all to fall back on. Regulations of The Jockey Club say that you cannot choose a name which has been borne by any other Thoroughbred within the last 15 years, which rules out no less than 200,000 names right at the start, including all the obvious ones like Old Dobbin, Black Beauty and Smoky Joe.

Moreover, as all racing fans know by now, the owners of a Thoroughbred are expected to exercise the utmost ingenuity in naming the baby horse after the parents. Devotees of breeding still cite the classic of all time, involving a colt by Questionnaire out of Delicacy. The Greentree Stable bred this colt and triumphantly named it Hash. The current champion is a filly by the little-known sire Pandemonium out of the mare Madam Chairman. Its owner had the inspiration to name it Order Order.

All great horses, the racing people say, have great names. Give a horse a stouthearted name like Man o' War and it will prove a champion. Call the same horse something frivolous like Swing and Sing and it will finish up the track. (It so happens that there is a horse named Swing and Sing, and it does usually finish up the track. I know because I own it. But that's another story.)

You need a great name, an ingenious name and a name which 200,000 people have failed to find before you. And as if this were not problem enough, the rules also require that the name be not more than 16 characters long, including all apostrophes, hyphens or spaces.

When I was a young man aching to own a race horse, the privilege of naming it was one of the great attractions. In fact I have been naming horses in daydreams all my life. There was one period when, in the unlikely event that anybody willed me a horse, I would have named it My Barbara, regardless of its sex. You can guess why. There was another period when I dreamed of owning a Night Editor. This was because I had just decided to become a newspaperman.

But mostly during this romantic period of mine I liked to pick out names that had a poetic ring. I thought at one time that Sweet Vermouth was just about the most beautiful name available in the English language. My father, who had been a frustrated horse owner all his life, was partial to Cellar Door. Two decades later, these names no longer strike me as very pretty or at all appropriate. Even if I still liked them, they would not have helped us the other night. Among the 200,000 Thoroughbreds of the past 15 years there is a Sweet Vermouth and there is a Cellar Door, not to mention a My Barbara and a Night Editor.

Now that I actually faced the problem, finding names was not nearly such a glamorous privilege as it had appeared in prospect. For one thing, the people who named the parents had been very little help. One sire was Bernborough, a fine, resounding name, but meaningless. Another sire was Nahar, one more word which you will not find in the dictionary, biographical dictionary or gazetteer. One of the dams was Jinxy, a cute name but contrived. Another dam was Saremp Singer, which means nothing except that her owner had had the devil's own time finding a name for an offspring of Saracen and Emphatic. We had four strikes on us from the start.

We piled the dictionary, a thesaurus and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations on the kitchen table and got to work. As chairman of the meeting, I first called for suggestions on the filly, which is by Nahar out of Beautician, by Black Servant.

My son said, "Call her The Rouser."

I gave him a withering glance and said, "Stick to something appropriate. There's not much we can do with Nahar. But what does Beautician suggest?"

There was a long silence. When I thought the proper psychological moment had come, I slyly unveiled a name which had popped into my head the minute I bought the filly at the yearling sales. "How about Lilygilder?" I asked and sat back to accept compliments. I thought that at the very least the name would endear me to my wife, as indicating that I held such a high opinion of her and of womankind in general as to consider the beautician's trade superfluous.

There was another silence.

"Nothing," my son said.

"It's clever enough," my wife said. "But it's ugly. Anyway, that's one of those quotations that everybody twists. Shakespeare didn't say 'gild the lily,' he said, 'paint the lily.' Do you want to call her Lilypainter? That's even uglier."

I brooded a while. "How about Vanity Vanity? You know, 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.' " This sounded slightly wrong to the rest of the family so we looked it up. The line actually goes "Vanity of vanities," which is more than 16 characters. We decided to table the filly momentarily.

Next was the colt by Omission out of Saremp Singer, by Saracen.

"Call him The Rouser," my son said.

"What's all this about The Rouser?" I asked.

My son is 15 and a rock 'n' roll fan. "Don't you ever listen to the records I play? Rebel Rouser is the greatest record ever made, hit the top 10 all last summer. We call it The Rouser for short."

"Omission out of Saremp Singer," I repeated firmly. "What does the breeding suggest?"

Finally my wife reached somewhere into the strange recesses of memory, back to an abnormal psychology course studied as a college sophomore, and came up with Fugue. This was a really tricky suggestion, since one meaning of fugue is a musical form, while the other psychological-medical meaning relates to wandering and lapse of memory.

We agreed that Fugue was an absolutely classic name, in the same league as Hash or Order Order, except that nobody in the world except psychiatrists and clinical psychologists would ever catch on. In fact it would probably be mispronounced most of the time. Nonetheless we could not, having thought of it, abandon it.

At that point my wife, who had still been thinking about the Nahar-Beautician filly and was now flushed with success, came up with Artifice, which we all agreed was fine.

So we were left with the colt by Bernborough out of Jinxy, by New Moon. This little colt is our pride and joy and the hope of our stable, sired by an Australian champion and out of a winning daughter of a winning daughter of a stakes-producing great-grandmother. I approached the task of naming him with some reverence.

"Let's call him The Rouser," my son said.

I looked appropriately stern and tried to think. Bernborough, as I have said, is not fish nor fowl, not a word nor a city nor the name of a man. It is a coined word, derived from the fact that Bernborough is by Emborough out of Bern Maid and the grandson of a famous old stallion named Gainsborough, a name which has some importance in history. Jinxy is also a coined word. What can you do with parents like that?

Perhaps the reader is cleverer at thinking up names than are the Havemanns and has one at the tip of his tongue. But I rather suspect that Bernborough-Jinxy is a parentage that would baffle even that noted breeder Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who hones his talents on about 20 baby horses a year and is generally held to be the Oscar Hammerstein of horse naming.

After we had looked blank for a long time my wife said, "You know, The Rouser isn't bad."

"I'll say it isn't," said my son.

I thought in vain for five more minutes and conceded defeat. We declared the conference over.

When we told our friends about the names we had selected, it turned out that most of them were completely baffled, as we had feared, by Fugue. They were mildly fond of Artifice. The one name they really went for, to a man, was The Rouser. They said it had a stouthearted sound, like Man o' War.

Alas, we were too optimistic, and far too naive. When The Jockey Club screened our applications, it developed that there was already a Fugue in the files, sired, as we should have guessed, by the great Counterpoint. There was also an Artifice. There was even a Rouser, this being an obvious name, as we should have suspected, for one of the many sons of the sire Stimulus. We had to start all over.

For the Nahar-Beautician filly we wound up with our first choice of the new names that occurred to us—False Colors. For the Omission-Saremp Singer colt, The Jockey Club gave us our eighth choice. By that point in our list the connection between name and breeding had become tenuous, but we liked the name anyway: Laconic. (There is a faint connection there, if you work at it.)

Our pet, the Bernborough colt, got a name which requires a little explaining. When my son heard that The Rouser was unavailable, he was naturally dismayed. It is pretty devastating, at the age of 15, to lose your first great literary success, not to mention a chance to immortalize your favorite piece of rock 'n' roll. "Let's try all the combinations," he said. "Let's ask for The Rebel. Also Rebel Rouser. Also Rouser Rebel. We're bound to get one of them."

I could only say, "Well, I'm dubious."

My boy said enthusiastically, "That's it!"

"That's what?"

"An even better name. Dubious. Let's call him Dr. Dubious."

So the colt is Dr. Dubious, in honor of two other entertainers greatly admired at our household. You remember, of course, the old Smith and Dale vaudeville skit, Dr. Kronkite. ("Are you the doctor?" "Yes." "I'm dubious." "How are you, Mr. Dubious?") This was funny a couple of generations ago and will still be funny long after rock 'n' roll has vanished; so maybe it's just as well The Jockey Club turned The Rouser down.