Blog: Why We Named Him Thurber

(Tell us the story of your dog’s name. Write your comments in the box at the bottom of this blog! Thanks! Tom and Thurber!)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
– Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2 of “Romeo & Juliet”

If you think, as Juliet does, that a name is no great matter, you never had to name a puppy.

Friends and family, neighbors and strangers… all of them came out of the woodwork badgering me with ferocious opinions on what should be a proper name to give to my puppy.

My indecision early on fueled their passions.

The naming process became such a hullaballoo — culminating in late-night phone calls and angry posts on social media — I eventually had to shut off what I intended to be a friendly, playful discussion, and refuse to talk to anyone about the name I would eventually choose.

James Thurber, one of American’s finest humorists, wrote often about dogs in The New Yorker and in his books.

At First, His Name Was Willy

My puppy’s breeders, Mike and Maryanne, named all of their pups based on their behavior and the name they gave my pup, “Willy,” was a very good choice.

He wasn’t the smallest in the litter, and certainly not the largest.

He was the most laid back. Whereas some of the pups were clearly A personality — bossy and demanding and way too energetic and alert — my guy was sleepy and silly and happy to stand back from the crowd.

Willy really was a good name for this pup.

A variation of the name “William” — which suggests authority and pedigree — “Willy” suggests playfulness and a lack of seriousness and self-importance.

My pup was certainly in the latter camp.

But I’d long had a name in mind for a puppy that I stumbled upon many years before my pup had been born.

A Thurber Carnival

When I was in the 10th grade in 1978, my best friend, Ayresie, and I found a paperback book on a shelf in his basement that had the cover torn off.

I’d later learn the book was called “A Thurber Carnival,” a collection of observations, short stories and, best of all, funny cartoons, produced by New Yorker humorist James Thurber back in the 1930s and 1940s.

The cartoons and captions were offbeat and original and we laughed out loud as we thumbed through the book looking through them.

Homework beckoned for Ayresie — unlike me, he was a great student and went on the graduate from West Point — and I agreed to go to the local library with him, so he could research a paper.

We brought “A Thurber Carnival” with us.

Ayresie didn’t get much work done, because I kept pointing out the funny cartoons and captions and reading them to him, causing us to laugh out loud, which we did a lot of in those years.

We got repeated warnings from the librarian to “keep it down.”

Then I came across a story called “The Dog that Bit People.”

It’s about one of the many dogs that Thurber, a life-long dog lover, especially loved, even though he had a penchant for biting people.

The dog’s name was Muggs. He ate off the kitchen table, standing on the seat, because he’d bite anyone who attempted to set his bowl on the floor.

“There was one advantage to being a family member,” Thurber wrote, “Muggs didn’t bite family members as often as he bit strangers.”

Ayresie and I laughed so hard at that line, the librarian finally kicked us out.

But I didn’t care.

James Thurber was a very funny writer and that moment in that library inspired me to become a writer.

Thurber’s clear love of dogs throughout this book and his other books, which I have read over and again — and his humorous and affectionate drawings of the many pups he shared his life with — would eventually leave me with one other thought and it was this:

If I ever get a dog, I will name him Thurber.

Passions Run High

“Thurber! You can’t name him Thurber!” shouted my otherwise soft-spoken sister, who had named her own dog “Snowball.”

“What the heck kind of name is Thurber?” said my friend, Griff, who has a Jack Russel named “Chip.”

“You need to name him a short, manly name like Sam or Butch or anything but some odd name, such as Thurber,” Griff continued.

Such critics were not alone.

According to The Scotsman, “Max” is the most popular name for male dogs on the planet.

That is followed by nine other top names that include “Charlie,” “Buddy,” “Rocky,” “Jack,” “Milo,” “Toby,” Leo,” “Rex” and “Bruno.”

Though I like all of these names, I’d wanted to give my pup a name more original — one that related back to the very funny writings of James Thurber.

“Muggs,” the name of the dog that bit people, was one I’d considered.

“Now you’re talking,” said Griff. “’Muggs.’ I dig it.”

“Muggsie!” said my siter Lisa. “You have to name him something cute and Muggsie is perfect.”

But I didn’t want to name my dog after a surly dog who bit people.

I’d considered “Rex,” too, as Thurber and his brothers had given that name to one of their many dogs.

But when it came right down to it, I knew what I’d name my future pup in 1978, the day Ayresie and I got booted from the library.

I Named Him “Thurber”

Despite my over-thinking and indecision, I kept coming back to the name “Thurber.”

I’ve always loved the sound of the name — the soft “thurrrrr” followed by the decisive “brrrrrr!”

Besides, my pup shared the warm, lovable look of many of the dogs Thurber affectionately sketched.

He was unlike the other pups in his litter. He was content to sit in the background, observing his litter mates — much as his human, a writer, prefers to do.

Naming him after one of America’s great humorists was the way to go.

And “Thurber” would be a unique name that few dogs, if any, on the planet would share.

I called Mike and Maryanne and asked them to call my pup by his new name, and the do so immediately.

“Thurber it is,” said Mike.

I Learned He Wasn’t the Only Dog Named Thurber

When Thurber was nearly 18 months old — and his name most definitely reflects his inquisitive, playful, silly nature — my Uncle Bert called me.

“I just learned something I thought you’d want to know,” he told me. “Your dog isn’t the only dog to go by the name of Thurber.”

“He’s not?” I said, a little disappointed by the names.

“No, he’s not,” said Bert. “In the 1960s, a famous singer named her beloved dog the very same name.”

“She did?” I said. “Who?”

When he told me, I laughed out loud in delight.

And so it is in the history of dog names — and the rare instances in which humans named their dogs Thurber — my dog, Thurber Purcell, shared his first name with a pup named Thurber Joplin.

According to the New York Times, Janice Joplin, a dog lover who took in strays, named one of her beautiful pups, Thurber, too!

Singer Janis Joplin with her beloved dog, Thurber, sometime in the 1960s.

9 thoughts on “Blog: Why We Named Him Thurber

  1. Carolyn says:

    Our much loved Golden Retriever was named Jabo (Jay-Bow). Our then college age son was driving through rural Mississippi and saw a home painted sign in front of a junked-up yard that said “Happy Birthday, Jabo!”. Thought it would be a good dog name. What a dog! He lived 14 1/2 years until we lost him just a couple of weeks ago. They do so enrich our lives and break our hearts in the end.
    Love reading your columns!

    • Thurber says:

      That’s a wonderful story and a wonderful life. They really are angels in our lives and bring so much joy. What a great name, too. I hope your sadness is waning. I cannot imagine Thurber not being a daily part of my life. He just turned 2 on Christmas Day (Born on Christmas 2020). Thank you for taking time to write! — Thurber’s Human, Tom 🙂

  2. Sue says:

    I worked in a library for many years and discarded our share of books due to space, relevance or availability through other branches. One mainstay was the kid’s book, “Shiloh” about a beagle pup. When we picked up our pup in Lyon Mt., NY, the lab/shepherd mix who lunged(chose) me reminded me not of the famous literary beagle, but rather of a certain Civil War battle. She is 12 now, lame in one paw, still without fear and direction and still loved unconditionally.

    • Thurber says:

      That is a terrific name and probably the only dog in the world that is named Shiloh! Love it. Thanks for taking time to write! — Thurber’s Human, Tom 🙂

  3. William F. “Bill” Hunt says:

    Our dog is a rescue. Found by a friend wandering the streets, she took him in, and after a few days, she called us.
    He is part Cairn Terrier, like the dog in the Wizard of Oz. Unlike that one, ours is blonde.
    We ran through a bunch of different names, but none seemed appropriate. After a couple of days, Peggy said “He looks like a mop”. He has a great, messy looking, untangled coat. When she said that I immediately flashed on the “Mop Tops”. I figured I couldn’t name him John Paul or George, so “Ringo” it was. He is so smart, and quick to learn. Ringo’s been with us about 5 years. A perfect addition to our family!

  4. Kathy Carilli says:

    Well, having just gone through a name “conference” ( at least 10 phone calls over 3 days) with my daughter and son in law over what to name their new puppy, I laughed out loud at your column. Let me interject here that I very often laugh out loud at your column. My new grand puppy is a ball of fluff cavadoodle. My son in law was anxious to name this little guy ‘something large’. After tossing out a few Solomons, Maximas and the like, the large name became Blitz. Like your Thurber, I haven’t heard of another puppy with that name. I love it! We, too, have a literary set of pet names . A daughter’s Lab is Scout due to the mom being named Harper. A new kitten is named Atticus. All fun! We wish you many wonderful years with Thurber. ❤️ P.S. Every single time my husbands finishes reading one of your columns, he says “ I wonder if his Dad was the really nice guy I worked with at Bell.”

    • Thurber says:

      Kathy, thanks for the comment. Blitz is an awesome name! Harper is one of my favorite names! My dad did work at Bell in Bethel Park and we just lost him 7 months ago at 89. Thanks for your kind words!

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