Colourful Surnames

Black, White, Grey, Green, Brown, Gold/Golden. Niall, I hear you ask, why have you capitalised all those colours!? Surely you’re not going to tell us that there’s some obscure English rule that says that you have to use capital letters with colours, and we’ve all been doing it wrong all this time? God I’d love to, but no, those words are capitalised because, yes, they’re colours, but in this case I’m using them as surnames.

I’ve written before about surnames, and what they mean. Most of them have fairly mundane origins, describing people’s jobs or their birthplaces. This is because in the grand scheme of things, surnames are fairly new. Many of the earliest English surnames were attached to people to differentiate them from other people in the village with the same first name (e.g. that’s John Miller the miller, not John Taylor the tailor). If you think about a lot of common English surnames, it’s probably not too hard to imagine where they came from. But why is it that colours are so common as surnames?

The answer is fascinatingly mundane. Most of them simply described people’s hair colour. Or occasionally people’s complexion, and you have to feel sorry for anyone who got the surname White or Grey/Gray that way. Green of course, probably didn’t come from anyone’s hair colour, and I doubt anyone ever felt nauseous frequently enough to get called Green. Rather, this surname usually came from someone who lived near a village green, was from a town with Green in the name, or who simply had a fondness for wearing green.

A surname you might be surprised to hear is derived from a colour is Bowie. The name comes from the Irish-language buidhe, meaning yellow or fair-haired (buΓ­ is the modern Irish word for yellow). Perhaps that influenced David Bowie in changing his name from David Jones (John’s son). Not that he seemed to have any attachment to the colour yellow though, so I doubt he was thinking too much about the etymology. Still, it sounds better than David Yellow, doesn’t it?

19 thoughts on “Colourful Surnames

  1. There are families hereabouts by the name of Redhead, Reddekopp (the German variation) and Redman. I worked with a Brownlee and my husband went to school with a Cherry. But I do wonder about the Silverthorn clan down the road. A traditional English name or an adaptation of some harder-to-spell name from a different nation? I’ve seen a few Blues, but never a pink, purple, aqua or violet.

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    • Silverthorn is an interesting one I’ve never come across before. Sounds like the name of a tree. I’ve seen Silverton a few times, probably from “Silver town” from silver-mining towns. “Blue” is a curious one too, as apparently it comes from an Old French word for “pale.”

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  2. I love the etymology of names–I keep trying to figure out where my husband’s last name, Whytock, came from since his family originated in Scotland. And only people in Scotland have ever been able to pronounce it properly!

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