Why is Rover a Common Generic Name for a Dog?

By Linda Cole

It’s not uncommon to use a generic name for a dog when you don’t know his name, or when talking about canines in general. The generic name Rover has been used for quite some time, but it’s never shown up on a list of popular dog names, which surprises a lot of people. So how did a name that has never been popular become a common name we use to mean any dog?

It began with a 6½ minute movie during the early years of filmmaking. In 1905, Cecil Milton Hepworth produced the first movie starring a dog, “Rescued By Rover.” It’s a simple film, especially when compared to today’s blockbusters, but the story line is believable. It’s considered to be a groundbreaking contribution to film history because the dog is the star, and the story unfolds in continuous frames that create a smooth transition from scene to scene, which is how it’s done today.

The star of the movie is Hepworth’s Collie named Blair, a handsome dog who looked like Lassie, playing the lead role of Rover. The scene opens with Blair and Hepworth’s infant daughter sitting next to a fireplace. The baby’s nanny enters the room to take her for a walk in her stroller. During the walk, the nanny runs across a soldier and stops to talk with him. While she’s distracted, a drunken beggar woman runs off with the baby. Distraught after finding the infant gone, the nanny rushes back home to inform the parents.

Rover, however, wasn’t going to wait around for the humans to do something. He takes off on a mission to find the child and races to the poor side of town to begin his search. It was a journey that involved running and swimming across a narrow river. When he reaches his destination, Rover starts checking out the houses until he locates the stolen infant. The dog then races back home to the devastated parents. He gets the father’s attention and leads him to where the baby is. Rover and the father rescue the baby for a happy ending.

This is a silent film, and one thing that made this short movie a success was how well the human actors and Blair played their role using just body language. It was a low budget film costing just $37 to make, but it became an international hit and made Hepworth a wealthy man. Hepworth had to remake the movie three times because there were so many requests for copies, the master negatives deteriorated from overuse. Considering how many copies were made, there are few around today, but there is a good one on You Tube you can watch here, if you’re interested. It’s not what we’re used to seeing today, but it was a significant film of the time starring a dog, and would open the door to other dog stars like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin.

Due to the success of “Rescued By Rover,” Hepworth made another movie starring his best canine pal. In this film, “The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper,” Rover runs after the kidnapper as he drives away with the toddler in his car. When the bad guy stops and gets out, Rover jumps into the driver’s seat and drives the toddler back home. You can watch this short movie here. The first minute and a half is slow, but it’s worth watching to see Blair driving the car. This film is 6 minutes and 50 seconds. Not really much of a plot in this one either, but Rover does a convincing job driving and most likely holds the title as the first dog to drive a car. It’s obvious that Blair was well trained.

Blair went on to star in many of Hepworth’s movies that were shot under the Hepworth Manufacturing Company. He was a much loved family pet and constant companion of Hepworth, and when Blair passed away, Hepworth released a statement to announce his death, which read in part:  “The Hepworth Manufacturing Company has just suffered quite a severe loss in the death of their famous old dog Rover.” The public knew Blair by his stage name, Rover, and that’s the name Hepworth used when announcing the loss of his beloved pet.

Because of the popularity of Hepworth’s films and Rover’s star power, his stage name became one of the most recognized names in the English language, and became a common generic name to mean any dog.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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