The roots of our modern name dunnock are quite ancient. The Anglo-Saxon word dun was used to describe a dull brown colour, and may actually originate from the Celtic languages spoken in Britain before the arrival of the Romans. The ending –ock is an Anglo-Saxon diminutive meaning little (e.g. hillock, paddock, tussock). So an appropriate translation of the name dunnock is something like ‘little brown one’. Despite the ancient roots of the word, the oldest references to the bird by the name dunnock date back to the late 15th century. So the term was probably created in the 1400s.
The Anglo-Saxons are believed to have called the bird hegesugge – literally the hedge sucker – and this word persisted for quite a long time before dunnock predominated. It was the word used by Chaucer for example in the 14th century.
An alternative name for the dunnock has been the hedge sparrow although despite a similar colouring it is not a sparrow at all. It was sometimes called the foolish sparrow too, because it was believed that it was easily deceived by the cuckoo when it was seeking a nest in which to lay its own eggs. The confusion as to the dunnock’s precise place in the classification of birds is longstanding. Old names for it include hedge warbler and winter nightingale; in Ireland a common name was the black wren. Dunnocks are, in fact, part of a group of thirteen birds called accentors, most of which live in mountainous areas.
My favourite former name for the dunnock is the shuffle-wing, on account of its rather unusual shuffling, jumping, flappy walk as it busies itself searching for food on the ground.
Dunnocks are relatively unobtrusive birds, yet they seem to have long been popular. One 19th century author described them as agreeable because of their ‘good humour, agility, gaiety and song’, and they were occasionally kept as caged pets for these reasons. Indeed, a common name used in the past was hedge chanter or hedge chat because of the bird’s pleasing and mellow babble – I can even hear one in my garden as I write this. However, whilst some people found the dunnock an easy pet, others concluded that they were ‘by no means easily tamed, but remain fearful and distant’.
The RSPB has a helpful identification guide to the dunnock that also includes a short video.