The English Gave Birds People Names and Some of Them Stuck

In a piece about how English and North American robins (two unrelated species that don’t even share a biological genus or family) got their names, Robert Francis shares how some English birds were given people names…and some of them stuck.

During the 15th century, the English had an endearing practice of granting common human names to the birds that lived among them. Virtually every bird in that era had a name, and most of them, like Will Wagtail and Philip Sparrow have been long forgotten. Polly Parrot has stuck around, and Tom Tit and Jenny Wren, personable companions of the English countryside, are names still sometimes found in children’s rhymes. Other human names, however, have been incorporated so durably into the common names that still grace birds as to almost entirely obscure their origin. The Magpie, a loquacious black and white bird with a penchant for snatching shiny objects, once bore the simple name “pie,” probably coming from its Roman name, “pica.” The English named these birds Margaret, which was then abbreviated to Maggie, and finally left at Mag Pie.[2] The vocal, crow-like bird called Jackdaw was also once just a “daw” named “Jack.”

The English also gave their ubiquitous and beloved orange-bellied, orb-shaped, wren-sized bird a human name. The first recorded Anglo-Saxon name for the Eurasian Robin was ruddoc, meaning “little red one.” By the medieval period, its name evolved to redbreast (the more accurate term orange only entered the English language when the fruit of the same name reached Great Britain in the 16th century). The English chose the satisfyingly alliterative name Robert for the redbreast, which they then changed to the popular Tudor nickname Robin. Soon enough, the name Robin Redbreast became so identified with the bird that Redbreast was dropped because it seemed so redundant.

I found this list of other people names for birds as well — other examples include jays and martins. (via @gretchenmcc)

Discussion  3 comments

Pete Ashton

I'm not a twitcher but robins are surprisingly endearing birds. Whenever we're working our allotment, especially disturbing the soil or turning the compost, there's always a robin hanging around looking for worms, like he's the guardian of our plot. I shall address him by his full name from now on.

Joshua Neds-Fox

This is fascinating, and I can't help but map the impulse onto other like-minded Brits, like Beatrix Potter or Kenneth Grahame, who anthropomorphized creatures in a similar two-name manner. In the future when we all know squirrels as "nutkins" we're going to need another explainer like this one.

Tim CarmodyMOD

My favorite robin fun fact is that the American robin is a different species from the European one; they just resemble each other, so European settlers used the familiar name.

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