THE WHIMSICAL NAMING OF CAT BREEDS
Copyright 2009, Sarah Hartwell
Back in the dawn of cat fancying (the latter half of the 19th Century), breeds got their names based on their supposed place of origin. The Victorian founders of the British cat fancy often relied on anecdote and supposition rather than hard evidence, while the roundabout routes the cats took on their way to Britain made their true origins unclear. The Siamese came from Siam (now Thailand) and can still be found there today. However, the Persian probably didn't come from Persia and was probably bred from Angora cats crossed with British and Russian longhairs.
IMPORTS AND IMPOSTERS
The Abyssinian supposedly came from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) or was imported by someone at the end of the Abyssinian war. Its alternative early name of British Tick suggests its origins were, in part, much closer to home. Ticked cats were also found in India, a country infested by British colonists in the latter half of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, across the ocean (or "herring pond" as 19th Century Brits tended to call it), the Maine Coon was the cat from Maine that had a raccoon-like ringed tail (more on that later) although it also had a variety of other names including American Shag and American Snughead!
Of course, names can change. Russian Blues were originally called Archangels based on the port they were shipped from. Why British fanciers concentrated on blues isn't certain since Russian Shorthairs occur in plenty of other colours. Likewise, Victorian breeders standardised on Seal Point Siamese and pointedly (if you'll excuse the pun) ignored the other naturally occurring colours.
The Maltese Blue (now just the Blue Shorthair) didn't come from Malta. "Maltese" is the name given to the slatey blue-grey colour found in various animals, just as "tabby" seems to be derived from a term for watered silk. The Havana Brown isn't from Cuba – the name refers to its colour, which is supposedly that of a "good Havana cigar". The Himalayan (Colourpoint Persian to the Brits) got its name because that pattern was already seen in Himalayan rabbits.
Some names are straightforward. The Japanese Bobtail from Japan, the Manx (sometimes called the minx by the geographically ignorant) from the Isle of Man and the Scottish Fold from Scotland. Others are downright silly - the otherworldly look of the bald Sphynx gave rise to the early suggestion of Moon Cat. The alternative, New Mexican hairless may have commemorated the extinct Mexican hairless, but would have added to geographical confusion since the modern Sphynx came from Canada, not New Mexico.
If you thought the Selkirk Rex came from the Scottish Borders, you'd be mistaken. While many North American settlements were named after British towns, hence this North American variety got its Scottish name in a roundabout way, being named after a relative of the breed originator. Likewise the Bristol, an American-bred Margay-hybrid that does not come from Bristol, England. Not does the Bombay come from the Indian city.
National pride can get out of hand. The Kurdish Van is an alternative, politically correct, name for the Turkish Van. The Anatolian cat also seems to be more to do with politics than with a distinct regional variety since "Anatolian Cats" had previously been exported and registered as Turkish Vans or Turkish Angoras.
While naming a breed after its place of discovery may reflect regional or national pride, in later days breeders and fanciers became more whimsical in their choice of name. Ragdoll reflected the (much exaggerated) floppiness of this relaxed breed. The name Louisiana Creole Cat was spurned in favour of Munchkin. Skookum is Chinook for "strong" or "first rate" but also means "monster" or a whimsical doll. These days, "Moon Cat" would probably be in with a real chance!
The Bengal's name might not be immediately obvious, but if you knew that the wild parent was Felis bengalensis you would see how it got its name. Similarly the Chausie is a Felis chaus hybrid. Several other hybrids follow this convention while the Toyger conflates the words "toy" and "tiger" to describe its looks. It has dropped the word Californian from its name in the same way the Dalles LaPerm is now just the LaPerm.
NATURAL OFFSPRING, ADOPTED ORIGINS
Thanks to recessive longhair genes lurking in the gene pool, some established varieties spawned longhaired offspring. Once an embarrassment to breeders, they became accepted in their own right and their names often alluded to their parent breeds
When longhaired Siamese turned up, they were dubbed Balinese. Bali isn't too far from Thailand, but it was their grace that apparently reminded breeders of Balinese temple dancers. Some American cat fancies tied themselves in knots over the Siamese and Balinese variants, insisting that some colours be called Javanese (a name used elsewhere for different relatives of the Siamese!). They did much the same with certain Persian colours, insisting they be called Kashmirs. The naming followed a geographical convention.
American breeders named longhaired Manxes "Cymric" based on the name for Wales. The Isle of Man is in the sea between Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland, but presumably the Celtic name of Cymric was more in keeping with the Manx parent breed. Or maybe it was because Manx cats had been reported from Cornwall, which was once Welsh.
The Longhair Scottish Fold became the Highland Fold to American breeders – a touch of geographical incorrectness according to Brits, since the cats originated from a Lowland region, Coupar Angus, and were being called the Coupari in Britain. Whimsy prevailed and the unattractive Coupari name seems to have vanished. When longhaired Abyssinians appeared, they were named Somali in keeping with the supposed Ethiopian origins of the parent breed.
The Scottish Fold seems to have gone round in circles. Out in Australia, prick-eared Scottish Folds are Scottish Shorthairs and Scottish Longhairs, recognised in their own right while elsewhere they are considered variants. This going round in circles isn't new. Back in the 19th Century British longhaired cats evolved into the cobby Persians. The cobby Persians begat the equally cobby Exotic Shorthair. This left a gap where the moderate-bodied British Longhair once existed. Continental breeders resolved this with the semi-longhaired Britanica (known as the Lowlander in the USA), identical to the British Shorthair in all ways except for their fur.
NAMING THE CROSSES, REINVENTING THE LOSSES
The Burmese, which arrived alongside the Siamese but was largely ignored, came from the same general region as the Siamese. Burma is, after all, not far away. Separating Siam and Burma are the Straits of Tonkin, so logic dictated that cats intermediate between Burmese and Siamese in pattern became known as the Tonkinese.
Portmanteau words are also popular, especially where the breed is a work in progress. A colourpoint Rex is a Si-Rex (Cornish Si-Rex, Devon Si-Rex etc). A colourpoint Manx might be a Si-Manx or a Manxamese depending on the whim of the breeder. A cross between Scottish Fold and Exotic Shorthair is a Foldex. Burmillas sprang from a Burmese/Chinchilla liaison. Some are accepted and bred, some vanish. The same goes for names. The Burmali is now just the Ticked Asian and the Burmoire is the Asian Smoke.
Sometimes a "lost" breed is recreated. For many years an imposter went by the name of Angora in Britain. It was an Oriental/Foreign Longhair and, in spite of the claimed Angora-like coat, had nothing to do with the Turkish Angora. The British pretender to the Angora name eventually got renamed and the Turkish (or Kurdish? Anatolian?) Angora has reclaimed its rightful name..
WHO'S THE DADDY?
Naming a breed based on its resemblance to another cat species, or even to an entirely different animal is another possibility. Hence the Maine Coon was not only the cat from Maine, it was the raccoon-like cat from Maine and some gullible individuals even though it was part raccoon. Yet other gullible individuals have helped spread the myth that the Maine Coon is part lynx based on its shaggy looks. One British writer, who skimped on his research, stated that this made it unsafe to keep a Maine Coon as a pet!
Wild-looking breeds may be named after the species they resemble. There are a raft of lynx-named cats whose ancestors are believed to include the lynx-like Bobcat. Popular belief would have it that domestic females have courted bobcat males although the DNA hasn't yet found a firm link. The Ocecat is not an ocelot hybrid in spite of its name (it has no wild ancestry at all).
The Toyger resembles a tiger. The Jaguarundi Curl simply resembles the wild jaguarundi. There are a couple of Panthurette/Pantherette varieties that resemble black leopards. Luckily no-one would seriously suggest the latter breeds have tiger or leopard blood, though a Bengal breeder from the UK fuelled the misconception that Bengals are crosses with leopards, rather than with Asian Leopard Cats.
So while there are breeds aplenty with wildcat, you can't rely on the name alone to tell you which wildcat - if any – was involved! And believe me, cats can't hybridise with other species of animal, so if anyone tries to sell you a "cabbit," in all probability it's a cat with Manx parentage (don't worry – even Joseph Train got that one wrong back in the 19th Century!).
The wildcat hybrids are sometimes erroneously called Feral Domestic Hybrids. This is a grave misnomer because a feral cat is a domestic cat that has reverted to the wild. Saying a species hybrid has a feral look (when the breeder means it resembles the wild species parent) would mean it is tatty, scrawny, has chewed up ears, runny eyes and looks half-starved, mangy or flea-ridden! Personally I'd steer clear of any breeder who claimed his/her cats were very feral looking as they obviously don't know what feral actually means!
LIKE DOG, LIKE CAT, LIKE RABBIT
Naming cats after dogs is another idea. A now-vanished variety of Persian was the Peke-Faced due to the extreme shortening of the muzzle. When a German breeder crossed a Devon Rex and a Scottish Fold it became the Poodle Cat. The Alaskan Snow Cat resembled Alaskan Huskies in colour, but was too close to the existing Silver Somali to become popular.
The Poodle Cat has recently been joined by the worryingly cute-sounding Puppykat. When the pursuit of cuteness outweighs physical health it is time to worry about breeders' sanity. So far we haven't seen Dobercats or Mastiff Cats, but the appearance of curly-tailed cats surely opens the way for a Spitz Cat! At least the Munchkin avoided being a Dachscat.
Cats being named after non-feline species isn't new. Back awhile they were named after fancy rabbits. Rex refers to the curled fur type that had already been seen in rabbits. The same goes for Angora. Himalayan referred to the pointed pattern already seen in rabbits.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
I think I've proved by now that breed names are often misleading. For months I was emailed by an insistent chap who believed every country had a home-grown cat breed. No matter how often he asked the same question, nor how often I explained that breed names don't always reflect origins, he would not accept that Havana Browns were not Cuban cats. His particular brand of insanity exhausted my patience when he asked what breeds cowboys and Cajuns kept as pets (and no, Creoles did not breed Louisiana Creole Cats).
So now you have it. The naming of cats is a curious thing – a mix of supposition, whimsy and geography that isn't always easy to unravel.