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It's Nelly's World

Sweet Nothings

alec vanderboom

Let us speak for a moment about that which should not be spoken of: dogs' nicknames. We are obsessed with what people do in private--peeping-tommery is its own industry, with subsets and special interests I don't even want to know about--but most of it probably boils down to just one item: ick. And you should admit it right now: the pet names you call your pet when no one else can hear are the ickiest things of all. I'm not going to mention the considerable competition, okay? You know the types of unmentionable private behavior to which I refer, and that's embarrassing enough.

But the private is just that. If it is not known by anyone else, it can't embarrass. Instead, it can be one of the sweetest pleasures in life.

Nothing comes out of nowhere. And with us, the genesis of the words we use is always found in the buried vault of childhood. (Ick enough for ya?) I always felt, when I saw someone acting sadistic or whimsically strict with his dog, that I was watching a home movie of the actor's childhood. "I told you to come here now! You're in trouble [smack]." I'll guarantee you that every gratuitous jerk on a leash had its mate a quarter of a century before, in a parent's mean withholding or nasty blow.

And every drop of treacle we dispense to the four-legged dependents who call forth a biological urge to parent from us comes from the same font.

But I am not going to point fingers. I am going to fess up. And allow embarrassment its rightful lodging in my life.

My father called me "pookadookaly." I started calling Nelly "punkie," because she is one, but sometimes I slip (hello, childhood) and she becomes "pookie." She's also--get out the Pepto Bismol, if you're prone--Nelly Jelly Belly. And La Lulu. Where did that come from? Not my youth, certainly!

But it was Mercy who conjured the most voluminous flow of ever-evolving nomenclature. En-dear-dear-dearments. I have been careful not to reuse them on Nelly, no matter that any beast I love will try to elicit these, because I've got a strange superstition about reusing "her" stuff. And I wish I could reel it all back when I hear myself say about someone I love, "Oh, he'll just die when he sees that!" The power of words; the power of fear.

"Mercy" became "Mousse." For some damn reason, sometimes it was "Soup-mousse." And if divulging this isn't the epitome of humiliating oneself in public, I haven't been watching enough reality TV.

Mercy had many other names. She was that dear to me. That love remains private. All the terms could no doubt be traced back through my own past; for that matter, I had a boyfriend whose highest praise, and mine for him, became to call each other "Dog," because we knew them to be the most excellent creatures on earth. Then we began to call each other "Dog-o-let." It actually wasn't icky at all, when I heard that. It was private.

If the origin of these names ("And he named all the animals . . .") can indeed be located in my long-gone history, then they were a way for me to bind my essence, child of humans, to hers. We united. In our private place, within the vessel of names.