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How Did The Robin Redbreast Get Its Name?

Robin Redbreast

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’.

The specific epithet, or the second part of the European robin’s scientific name, rubecula, also derives from the same root, and ‘ruber‘, the Latin for 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 include 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 who was 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.

Robin is a diminutive form of Robert, an Old French name that entered England after the Norman Conquest. It was a popular name in Continental Europe and derives from an ancient Germanic given name, Hrōþiberhtaz, from ‘Hrōþi’ meaning ‘fame’ and ‘berhta’ meaning ‘bright’.

It is not known why the redbreast was given the moniker Robin. It could simply have been alliteration, or it could have been due to the bird’s popularity and bright red breast.

However, unlike many other species which lost their nicknames over time, the robin’s name stuck and by the 1540s the original name of redbreast had largely been dispensed with and it became known simply as robin.

It was also sometimes known affectionally as the robinet, as was the chaffinch, which must be the avian record holder for the number of nicknames by which it’s referred to, roberd being another.

But why redbreast? As we alluded to at the beginning of this article, robins don’t actually have red breasts; they are of course orange.

Robin Redbreast

It is often said that until the arrival of the fruit, there was no English word for the colour orange. This is not exactly true.

In Old English there was a word ‘geoluhread’ or ‘yellow-red’ – the g is likely to have been pronounced as a ‘y’ sound and the ‘eo’ diphthong may have been pronounced like ‘eh’, so it would have sounded very much like the modern translation – for reddish orange. There was also ‘geolucrog‘ (yellow-saffron) for yellowish orange. But many orange things such as red deer, red hair, the Red Planet, and the robin redbreast were simply described as red.

What about the American robin?

Until relatively recently the European robin was classified as a member of the thrush family related to blackbirds, fieldfares, and redwings. It is now considered to belong to the Old World flycatcher family, and specifically to the chats, more closely related to the nightingale.

The American robin, however, is a member of the thrush family, and when early colonial settlers in the New World first came across it they noticed its resemblance to the robin back home, in particular its bright orange breast, and named it after it.

It was not the only bird though to be bestowed with the name robin. Any bird in North America with a significant amount of orange plumage was given the title. And so bluebirds are sometimes known as blue robins, towhees are ground robins, and the Baltimore oriole is the golden robin.

The name robin also refers to dozens of other species of birds such as the rufous-breasted bush robin and white-tailed robin which sit in the chat family, and the scarlet robin and Pekin robin which don’t.

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