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.
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.