They Shall not Remain Nameless: Why I—and others nickname our cars, homes and other nonliving objects
The second car my late husband and I owned was a bright blue 1965 230 SL Mercedes convertible with two tops. The car had blown a rod and my husband spotted it sitting in pieces in some mechanic’s garage in 1969, had it fixed, bought it and drove it home.
The car was adorable. I named it “Nellie” on the spot. She was cute and perky. And when I drove Nellie, a stick shift, no less, I felt like I was riding with a good friend whose job was to get me where I needed to go.
Through the years, she did have her moments like when she started fuming over something and smoke started coming out all ends. However, we kept that car until I decided to sell it after my husband died in 2011. I cried when the buyer drove away with Nellie and remember feeling similar to the way I did when my eldest went off to school for the first time. Only Nellie wasn’t coming back…ever.
My entire life I have named nonliving things and decided whether it was feminine or masculine because of how it looked, its size, shape or color. Therefore, my names are not gender neutral. I started doing this as a little girl. I gave each of my dolls special names and I remember a piggy bank I owned that I named Alma, after one of my mother’s very wealthy friends. I had bikes, and books— Edith or Rochester, perhaps it was shorthand; and my mother’s paintings which already had names. And when I would flip through her art books, I would name the ones that were untitled.
The glass pieces my mother handed down to me I call by names that are not very original, but it works for me. One glass piece I call John because the artist is John Littleton (Harvey Littleton's son), and another piece, Dale, as in Chihuly. Doing so brings them to life for me as if they are my little charges. They are more than just objects. They’re a special Dale or John or Littleton. Even my kids picked up on these names and will ask, “How’s the Littleton?”
Right now, more than ever as we stare at our four walls and feel isolated during the pandemic, despite technology and the phone, the objects in our homes keep us company. They’re low maintenance most of the time unless they don’t work. At least they don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, take bathroom breaks, talk too much (unless you have an Echo or similar device and I don’t), fight over the remote or leave the house on their own when I need them most. My cell Phoebe leaves with me!
Let me explain more about why I do this naming shtick. It's an attempt to anthropomorphize. Material things mean little to me, but relationships are another story. Giving things a name helps me connect with them on an emotional level. It establishes a relationship; personalizes it. Then they hold a special place in my heart.
I call my computer Horatio. My treadmill I named Percy for one of my favorite southern authors, Walker Percy. My black Honda I dubbed Black Beauty. I had a boyfriend with a red Mercedes that I named Red. I had a silver Prius that I called Sylvie. My younger son now owns it, and I’m not sure if he still calls her that. I must ask.
Now, to think of it, I don’t think my late husband ever called Nellie, Nellie. He’d say instead, “I’m going to take the Mercedes.” Maybe, it’s a female thing. But, to me, that Mercedes will always be my little Nellie. I never named my washer and dryer or dishwasher. I guess we don’t bond with everything; I suppose I do have favorites.
However, like any relationship, my things and I can have our issues. Objects can have attitude; they can act defiant. When Horatio is acting up, I first try to compliment him, “You are always so dependable, what’s going on?” The gentle approach is best. I remember when I owned my last car, Black Beauty, I was afraid to complain about her not starting one day for fear she would retaliate. More things might start breaking down. I very sweetly said to Black Beauty, “I am sorry you’re out of sorts today,” and called Triple A. It was an easy fix. The battery had died. She was happy I had paid attention.
Not only do I name my nonliving things, I talk to them, too, and not just in my head but out loud.
Do I chastise my objects when they don’t work? Yes. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Hey, stop it,” I might say when Phoebe, the cell, starts to die or won’t pull up my email because the battery is dying. On the other hand, I have to consider all that Phoebe does: she takes pictures and videos, sends me texts and emails, helps order food, walks down the street with me and allows me to tweak her behavior in “settings”. How easy is that?
“Get your act together,” I told Walker, the treadmill, one day when he started to slow down. Sadly, it was old age.
“You’ve got a lot to learn," I told my iPad Ida one night when I sat down to watch “The Crown” on Netflix and Ida began to falter. I scolded her, “Never, ever give out at night when I want to watch my programs,” I uttered under my breath. And presto, Ida came back to life.
Of course, I’m appreciative of all they do.
Do I compliment my objects? Yes, “Good job.”
Am I nice to them when I’ve used them a lot? Yes, yes, yes.
Am I thankful when they work when I need them? Oh, yes, like when my email functioned smoothly as Barbara and I were finishing the manuscript of our current book. Sending files back and forth through email was tricky and I needed Albert, my AOL, to be on his best behavior.
Some readers might think I am certifiable. I question this myself based on an altercation I had with Siri a few years back when she messed me up with directions. I was driving around in circles and totally lost it. I screamed, used horrible words. I was a rude, crazy-talking monster. It almost ended our relationship, and I don’t think it has ever been the same.
Not everyone does this naming thing. It just doesn’t work for all. For example, Barbara, who does not name anything, calls her adorable vintage home “house” and her favorite maple tree “tree.” She was curious about what naming things stems from and how it makes me feel. Then, she referred me to a New York Times story, “A House by Any Other Name,” by Joanne Kaufman (Nov. 3, 2020). “There’s no place like home. But plenty of people think that home by some other name makes it even more special. ‘Your home is your identity,’ said David Wilk, the director of the real estate program at the Temple University Fox School of Business. ‘People may name their house to impress others, but mostly it’s a way to make their house seem more lovable and more interesting.’”
So, if you’re going to do the name game, here are some of my rules of my nameology:
- Pick something that reminds you of how you see the object. Nellie, as I said, was cute and perky. Horatio sounds dependable and boring as most computers are, except to a computer geek who might swoon over him.
- You might want to consider legacy and name the object after a close family member or someone you admire. In some cultures, certain names are lucky.
- No curse words allowed. We all use them when our objects are on the blink. Not acceptable. Be respectful of them, and they’ll respectfully perform for you.
- Keep a list of names, like we do with passwords, so we don’t forget who’s who. I get my three kids mixed up at times so you can imagine if you name several objects. It can be insulting to call your toaster oven by the wrong name. You know what can happen? You might get burnt... toast.
- Be kind to your objects at all times. Maybe we need a day for this? Objects Day! Don’t abuse them or take them for granted. When something breaks down, don’t kick it to start it working again. Go online and find out how to fix the problem or call in a professional. And like we do for ourselves when we have annual checkups, do the same for your things that need it. We want them to be healthy, too.
- Keep a list of good people who can come to your aid. I have a computer guy I rely on when Horatio acts up. The tech guru can swoop in with his rescue remote program and fix the issue most times.
- And now you’re probably wondering if I expect any repair people to call my things by the names, I’ve given them? I don’t go that far, but I think it might be a nice thing to do in the future. It shows respect rather than saying your computer could be loose in its socket, or it doesn’t have enough memory since we’re all going through that at our ages, or the hard disc has failed. How insulting. I would prefer to say instead, “Horace is having a bad day.” And, after all, I don’t want to be called “she” or “her” or “woman.” Why would an object want to be so generic or like everyone else?
In reality, our inanimate objects do nothing but exist for our benefit. I turn them on when I need them and that’s that. By naming them, I breathe life into my things. But not real life. However, good enough for me, especially in these trying times.