I’ve just come across a totally brilliant practice, of which I was previously unaware, among the Akan of Ghana as studied by sociolinguist Samuel Gyasi Obeng:
Like Americans, Ghanaians keep dogs as pets, for security, for hunting, and for the economic benefits derived from breeding and selling puppies. But they also keep and name dogs to create what Obeng calls “a communicative situation in which the ‘unspeakable’ may be spoken.” In such cases, Ghanaians give dogs names that address a problem or issue that cannot be addressed directly by their owners without fear of losing face in the community. “There are probably many dogs named ‘Mind Your Own Business’ in Ghana,” Obeng says, laughing. “People frequently name their dogs to call attention to a social grievance, such as ingratitude or gossip.”
In a recent paper, Obeng cites various examples of dogs with Akan names that address troubling personal issues. Many dogs cited had one- or two-word Akan names that translate into English phrases such as: “Whatever you do, people will gossip about you”; “Enough of your harassment!”; “Money matters/Life is hard!”; and the dramatically indignant, “The community must now be satisfied since the ‘evil’ it wished for me has eventually befallen me.” Sometimes the dog itself becomes a significant tool for dealing with face-threatening situations, as with the dog named “Whatever you do, people will gossip about you.” Having given his dog this name, the owner was able to show his neighbors that he was aware of and insulted by their gossip. By Akan custom, it is also acceptable to call attention to the dog’s name in the presence of the person who is indirectly addressed through the dog. “If an Akan names his dog ‘My neighbor is ungrateful,’ and he happens to pass by that neighbor’s house, he could call the dog’s name and shower it with insults,” Obeng explains. “Of course, the neighbor knows perfectly well that he is the target of these insults, but he cannot respond, because after all, it is the dog being spoken to, not him.”
Imagine shouting “EnoughofYourHarassment” across the park at the vanishing tail of your dog.
I chanced upon this as a result of reading Teju‘s piece Names are Doors 2. I have a memory that amongst the Akan, who have the tradition of naming children after the day of the week they are born on, there is a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population named for the day of the week which is considered to be of ill-omen. Unfortunately I can’t find out whether this is indeed the case, or even which day is supposed to be unlucky (although I think it might be Wednesday).
What, I wonder, is the effect on a dog of being called “The community must now be satisfied since the ‘evil’ it wished for me has eventually befallen me” and being berated and upbraided loudly when in the presence of said community. And what, I further wonder, would I have called Maizy had this device been known to me.
The former question marks me out as a typical Brit more concerned about canine well-being than non-confrontational methods of easing community tensions. So the answer to the latter would probably be “What a gorgeous dog you are”. Which is, in fact, already among her numerous noms de parc already, but most accurate and useful would be “Beware, I Bite”.