Thanks to Jennifer for suggesting Reynard as our Baby Name of the Day.
If you’re sure and certain that renard is French for fox, well, that’s true. But lest you dismiss Reynard as a cousin for Ciel and other foreign word nature names, have I got a story for you.
Back in the day, the French word for fox was goupil. Except foxes were a big hassle for farmers. Just saying goupil was considered bad luck – an invitation for the pesky creatures to shop your livestock.
Reynard started out as an unrelated given name. He comes from Germanic elements, but there’s some debate about his precise origins. You’ll find meanings ranging from advice/counsel and strength to clever and resourceful.
Regardless of his meaning, at some point before the twelfth century, Reynard became the name of a popular figure in folklore – a crafty fox.
In one early story, the fox is summoned to the court of King Leo, the lion, to answer charges pressed by Ysengrin, the wolf. Another has Reynard faking his own death and taking revenge on the enemies who attend his funeral. The stories are thinly veiled commentaries on contemporary society. Reynard’s role is that of the hero, and the common man.
He’s recorded in Latin, German, and French in the twelfth century, in Alsace, Paris, and Ghent, among other places. But none of them seems to be new; instead, they’re all written versions of an oral tradition that is almost certainly older.
By the thirteenth century, the re-telling of Reynard’s adventures became so well-known that the French word for fox changed entirely, from goupil to renard.
We’ve been adapting and re-telling Reynard’s story along the way, in a nineteenth century novel and 1980s pop music. He appeared in beverage advertisements in the 1920s and in a modern art installation in a park in Amsterdam just recently.
But the most astounding re-use of Reynard is downright ugly. In 1937, an anti-Semitic children’s story was published in Dutch, adding a Jewish rhinoceros to the cast of characters. Reynard kills all of the rhinos. It was published as a book and made into a movie – a sinister re-use of a folk hero.
Reynardine sounds like a feminine form, but instead it is the title of an English or Irish ballad, one printed in the early part of the nineteenth century, and known throughout the US, too. The name changes dramatically – he’s Randal in some places. And while he isn’t an actual fox, he’s a seducer of innocent young women with teeth that “brightly shine.”
Despite the folk tale’s enduring qualities, Reynard has seen little use as a given name. The Normans brought him to England, but he never really caught on. He’s more often seen as a surname – almost certainly related to the animal name, a nod to an ancestor considered cunning.
While Bernard and the regal Richard are out of favor these days, Ray is ahead of the curve. This makes Reynard a mixed set – his first syllable sounds trend-setting; his second, not ready for revival. Still, he’d easily shorten to Rey, an appealing appellation.