How Did The Robin Redbreast Get Its Name?


With its bright orange breast and friendly nature, the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is one of our most familiar birds.

But it hasn’t always been called the robin. In fact, the nation’s favourite bird has been through several name changes over the last few hundred years.

Its earliest recorded name is the ruddock, spelt ‘ruddoke’ in Middle English, which covered a period of about 300 years from just after the Norman conquest in 1066 to the late 15th century. The word derives from a Proto-Indo-European root, ‘reudh’, meaning red. Other derivatives of the root that are still in use today include the words ‘ruddy’, ‘rowan’, ‘ruby’, ‘robust’ (after a kind of hardwood oak known for its reddish centre), and of course the colour ‘red’.

From the early 15th century, the ruddock started to be referred to as the redbreast, and although it’s not clear why the change in name, it can be inferred that people were simply describing it as seen.

At about the same time, it became fashionable in England, Wales, and Scotland to give animal species human names, so the wagtail became Willie or Polly Wagtail, the daw, Jack Daw, and the blue tit, Tom Tit. Other animals that were rechristened included goats (Billy and Nanny, short for William and Anne) and donkeys (Jack and Jenny).

Jack and Jenny were particularly popular for the male and female of a species, and the wren often considered to be the wife of the robin in folk tales and nursery rhymes, as immortalised in Isabella’s children’s story The Marriage of Robin Redbreast and the Wren, became Jenny Wren.

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