Wren: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on September 30, 2013

English: Bicolored Wren, shot in Barquisimeto,...Editor’s note: This post was originally published on December 1, 2008.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on September 30, 2013.

Today’s post was written for my sister, better known as Bird, and her namesake niece.

Thanks to Katharine for suggesting our Name of the Day should be the fine feathered Wren.

Not every animal name works.  I’d wince if I met a child named Cheetah.  But Wren moves from the wilds to the nursery with grace and style.

A wren is a songbird. Various wren cousins live all over the world. They’re smallish in size, but their songs can be surprisingly loud and complex.

The bird was known as the wrenne in Middle English and the wrenna or wrænna in Old English.  It can be traced back to the Germanic werna and variations appear in Old Icelandic, too.

While Wren feels like a restrained, even humble name, it also sounds just like reine - the French word for queen.  Fitting, because this creature is sometimes known as King of the Birds.

Aristotle wrote of a contest amongst all the birds to determine their leader.  It was decided that he who could fly the highest would earn the crown.  It looked like the eagle would win handily.  Except that a clever little wren hid in the proud eagle’s plumage.  At the last minute, he soared ahead on his own, and the title went to the wren instead.

The fable survives, but the bird changes over the centuries.

There’s a poem called “The Gold-crested Wren” dating to 1868, and some families probably earned the surname thanks to an ancestor’s small size.  Christopher Wren was a celebrated architect at the turn of the eighteenth century.  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is among his masterworks.

But Wren doesn’t appear as a given name until very recently.  There are a very small number of them over the years.  In 2000, 18 girls and 10 boys received the name.  But by 2010, the numbers were 185 girls and 32 boys.  Last year, 250 newborn girls were named Wren, along with 29 boys.

Influences include:

  • A 1981 children’s story called Wren featured a character with cerebral palsy.  The author, Marie Killilea, also wrote two books about her real-life daughter, Karen, who was born with the disease.  Marie’s efforts changed the way that we look at cerebral palsy and helped her daughter lead a full life.
  • Comic strip Baby Blues has been around since the 1990s.  The parents are Wanda and Darryl, with kids called Zoe, Hammie, and Wren.
  • Sci fi/fantasy authors Philip Reeve, Sherwood Smith, and Terry Brooks have all used the name for characters.

They’re all pretty minor characters, though.  Today’s parents probably think of Ren from Ren and Stimpy fame before those references, and I doubt any of us are naming our kids after high-strung animated chihuahuas.  Or maybe Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose, though again, he was Ren, hold the W.

Chances are that Wren just fits with our tendency to borrow bird names for girls: Robin and Raven, of course, as well as Birdie, though she has more history as a nickname.

Overall, Wren makes for a spare, simple name for a girl.  She’s not as delicate as Lily, less surprising than River.  In either the middle or the first spot, Wren has quite a bit of appeal.  She’s also nicely obscure, never having ranked in the US Top 1000 – yet.

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