An Onomastic Conundrum

In medieval times, tradesmen took surnames that reflected their profession. If you were John, and you baked bread for a living, you’d be John Baker.

A great many of these names persist, e.g. Archer, Bailey, Baker, Barber, Bishop, Bowman, Brewer, Carpenter, Carter, Cartwright, Carver, Chandler, Chaplin, Chapman, Clark, Collier, Conner, Cook, Cooper, Cutler, Dean, Dyer, Farmer, Falconer (Faulkner), Farrier, Fisher, Fletcher, Forester, Fowler, Fuller, Gardner, Glover, Hooper, Hunter, Joiner, Mason, Mercer, Miller, Porter, Potter, Reeve, Sadler, Sawyer, Shepherd, Skinner, Slater, Smith, Tanner, Taylor, Thatcher, Turner, Tyler, Walker, Ward, Weaver, Wheeler, etc.

But I was wondering (and if I weren’t so lazy, I’d go and do some actual research): what about those common names that refer to colors? Names like Brown, Green, White, and Black? What do those represent?

Also, why aren’t other common words for colors used as names? Why are lots of people named Brown and Green, but nobody is named Red or Yellow or Blue?


  1. Dom says

    Johnny Red? From the NBA.

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    You mean Johnny Kerr?

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  3. I know you specified “surnames” in your opening sentence, but Red, of course, is a fairly common nickname for a red-haired person. Also, Erik the Red is a historical person. His son, of course, was Leif Ericson, which illustrates a most common source for surnames, namely patronymics.

    Perhaps Yellow is not used in Western societies because there were few Asians in those societies when the adoption of surnames became commonplace. (Is it possible that the word “yellow” in Chinese is a known choice for a Chinese surname?)

    As for Green/Verdi, which, to my knowledge, does not correspond to human skin or hair color, I can think of a possible reason for its use. During the time (late middle ages?) when Jews were forced to assume surnames (in place of their reliance on patronymics) by the governments of their host countries, there were opportunities to purchase a non-derogatory name that might otherwise have been assigned. So, for example, a poor Jew might have been assigned the name “Green” if he couldn’t pay for “White”.

    As for “Blue”, though I have heard of its use as a given name, it is neither a hair or skin color, nor is it normally thought of as a pejorative name, such as “Green” is (because of the color’s predominance in the family of lizards).

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I dunno, Henry; that Green hypothesis seems a bit of a reach.

    I’m curious about common surnames here. Why colors at all? If based on hair, then why not Yellow or Red? (Sure, there was Erik the Red, but I’ve never heard of Red as an actual surname, even though the British Isles are full of red-haired people.)

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  5. That “Green hypothesis” is not such a reach, Malcolm. I am reminded of the following old Jewish joke:

    A Jewish man came home from the German registrar with his new surname. He told his wife that their new name is Schweiss [sweat]. Somewhat relieved, his wife said, “Well that’s not too bad a name!” To which her husband replied, “Yes, but that “w” cost me a lot of money!” [“Scheiss” means “shit”].

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Right, but I’m talking about English surnames here, and I doubt that selling names to Jews had much of an effect on the distribution of names in medieval England. And why colors in the first place?

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  7. OK then; if you’re going to get all serious about this “Onomastic Conundrum”, you can do your own research.


    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Ha! Fair enough.

    Good joke, by the way.

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  9. Obama is awesome!

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *