Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Ask a linguist - Message details

Subject: Colors as English Surnames
English surnames such as White, Black, Green, Gray, and Brown are common, but other color names such as red, yellow, and purple are not.

My wife thinks it is because the brighter colors were not generally available in the past when these surnames developed.

Is there another explanation?

Thank you,
Tom Quinn

This is an interesting question but one with no simple answer.

Color terms developed into surnames for a variety of reasons. For
example, the surnames 'Black', 'White' and 'Brown' often developed
from nicknames applied because of the bearer's complexion. On the
other hand, 'Green' was variously conferred because the bearer lived
next to the village green, because he had played the Green Man in a
play, or perhaps because he was fond of green clothing.

By the way, it is not true that 'red' did not become a surname. The
Old English form was , with a long vowel. This gave rise to the
surname variously spelled Reade, Read or Reed. This name was often
conferred on a man with red hair. Once the surname was established,
the color term underwent shortening of the vowel. The same shortening
occurred in other words, such as 'bread', 'head' and 'dead' but only
with 'red' did we change the spelling.

The fact that 'yellow' didn't become a surname is probably an
accident: medieval speakers simply didn't find any circumstance to
confer this word as a name.

As for 'purple', this word was simply not in use in English as a color
term when surnames were being invented. All of 'purple', 'orange'
and 'pink' were late additions to our set of color terms.

Larry Trask
[email protected]
> If you have any problems please email [email protected]

Reply From: R. Larry Trask     click here to access email
Date: Jan-12-2004
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Colors as English Surnames   Anthea Fraser Gupta    (Jan-19-2004)
  2. Re: Colors as English Surnames   Geoffrey Sampson    (Jan-13-2004)

Back to Recent Message