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Believe it or not, Ralph has a factual story.

Part One: Ralph as a name for people

Occasionally, "Ralph" has been used as a family name, but much more frequently, it is a masculine given name with Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Old Norse roots. It is actually a shortened form of a name previously rendered in longer forms, including Radulf, Rathulfr, and Rædwulf. These names combine two words: "ræd" is an older form of rede, meaning "counsel," and "wulf" is an older form of wolf.

Many name meaning books agree that Ralph means "counsel-wolf," although few give any detailed etymology for it. Other names with related word roots include Randolph, which means "shield-wolf," and Wolfram, which means "wolf-raven."

The pronunciation of the name Ralph has undergone an interesting transformation in the last few decades or so. Almost everyone currently pronounces it in a manner similar to the word "alpha." However, prior to the early twentieth century, it was more frequently pronounced in a manner similar to the word "safe." This earlier pronunciation probably derived from the earlier forms of the name, especially Rædwulf. When the name was shortened, the earlier vowel sound was retained, and the letter L became silent.

Since then, this older pronunciation has gradually faded. Today only a few families in the upper classes of British society still use it.

One well known figure to retain the traditional pronunciation into the twentieth century was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. At this writing, probably the most famous inheritor of this tradition is the actor Ralph Fiennes, and there are millions of young people around the world who might never have heard it said in the old way at all, if it were not for his popularity.

Part Two: Ralph as a name in Webster 1913

In what has become a source of great amusement to some people, of annoyance to others, and of perplexity to almost everyone, Webster 1913's entry for Ralph says it is "a name sometimes given to the raven." Only this, and nothing more.

Some find this definition so cryptic, they have advanced a claim that the entry is entirely fabricated. However, my research disproves this claim.

The earliest reference I was able to find was in a poem first published at the end of the eighteenth century, in 1797 to be precise. The poem was titled "Prison Amusements" and was written by James Montgomery while he was being held prisoner in York Castle for writing some politically incorrect opinions. This political background gave the poem unusual fame when it was published soon after his release, and it has also been read by many visitors to the castle since then. The following excerpt is interesting for our purposes here:

And yet the fellow ne'er is safe
From the tremendous beak of Ralph;
A raven grim, in black and blue,
As' arch a knave as e'er you knew;
Who hops about with broken pinions,
And thinks these walls his own dominions!

In the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a popular book called A Familiar History of Birds: Their Nature, Habits, and Instincts, written by Edward Stanley, Lord Bishop of Norwich. I have been able to find references to editions published as early as 1840, and references to later editions published in 1848, 1865, 1880, 1883, and 1892. So, this book seems to have remained fairly well known and influential for at least half a century. One of its anecdotes included the following passage:

Coming into the inn yard my chaise ran over and bruised the leg of a favorite Newfoundland dog, and while we were examining the injury, Ralph, the raven, looked on also. That night the dog was tied up under the manger with my horse and the raven not only visited him, but brought him bones and attended him with particular marks of kindness. (emphasis added)

The story I have quoted above seems to have made its way into other influential publications as well. The next reference I was able to find was from a book first published in 1853, although the citation I saw was from an edition printed in 1892. The book was Anecdotes of the Habits and Instincts of Birds, Reptiles, and Fishes, written by someone known to history as Mrs. R. Lee. Here is her version of the story:

The Saturday Magazine gives a still stronger proof of attachment in a raven, which attended a dog with the utmost kindness, whose leg had been injured by the wheel of a chaise passing over it. "The dog was tied up under a manger, where Ralph, the raven, visited him, and brought him bones. The ostler said the bird had been brought up with a dog, and great affection subsisted between them; that the dog's leg had been broken, and during his confinement, Ralph waited on him, carried his food, and scarcely left him alone. He one night nearly pecked a hole through the stable door, which was shut, that he might rejoin his invalid friend; and this attachment made him fond of all dogs." (emphasis added)

I found another clear reference to the story appearing, in a similar form, in a primary school reader first published in 1856. Readers of this type were used in the schooling of young children throughout the nineteenth century.

From these references we can see that the usage of Ralph as a name for the raven was widely known back in 1913, so this is probably why the editors of Webster 1913 did not feel any need to explicate their definition.

The rhyme scheme in James Montgomery's poem makes it clear that the poet had in mind the old pronunciation for the name Ralph, which is sometimes written as "rafe" to make the intended sound obvious. This similarity of vowel sounds, along with its apt rhyme with "safe," may be the main reason for any connection having arisen between this name and the raven.

Part Three: References

I have given the references their own section, in case skeptical readers wish to see the source materials for themselves.

  1. Stanley, Edward, Lord Bishop of Norwich. A Familiar History of Birds: their Nature, Habits, and Instincts. Some edition published 1840. Fourth edition published 1848. later editions 1865, 1880, 1883, 1892.

    Describes "Ralph, the raven" feeding an injured dog.

    quoted in:
    http://www.agsconsulting.com/htdbv5/r4730b.htm

  2. Lee, Mrs. R. Anecdotes of the Habits and Instincts of Birds, Reptiles, and Fishes. Published 1853. Describes very similar details of "Ralph, the raven" feeding an injured dog.

    quoted in:
    http://web.ukonline.co.uk/archer/anecdotes03.html

  3. A reader for primary school children, published 1856, also repeats the story of "Ralph, the raven" feeding an injured dog.

    quoted in:
    http://w4.ed.uiuc.edu/faculty/westbury/Paradigm/minns.html

  4. Montgomery, James. "Prison Amusements." Published 1797.

    reproduced in full at:
    http://freespace.virgin.net/cade.york/castle/prison5.htm