Q: Many people are called “Mr. Black,” “Ms. White,” “Mr. Gray,” or “Ms. Brown,” but almost no one is “Mr. Red” or “Mr. Yellow,” “Ms. Pink,” “Ms. Purple,” or “Ms. Blue.” Why are so many beautiful colors unpopular as family names?
A: To keep things simple, we’ll discuss only names of British origin, though much of this would apply to surnames that originated elsewhere in Europe.
When people began using colors as surnames in Britain during the Middle Ages, the colors usually referred to appearance—hair color, complexion, clothing, and so on.
As Charles Wareing Endell Bardsley explains in English Surnames, Their Sources and Significations (1915), “there was no term in the vocabulary of the day which could be used to denote the colour of the dress, the hair, or the face, which did not find itself a place among our surnames.”
The historian Mark Lower notes that “Black” and its variants “doubtless refer in general to the dark complexion and black hair of the original owners.”
Similarly, Lower writes in Patronymica Britannica: A Dictionary of Family Names in the United Kingdom (1860), the name “Brown” refers “to the dark complexion of its original bearers,” and “white” to someone “of light or fair complexion.”
As for the surname “Grey” (or “Gray”), Lower believes it’s derived from a place name, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that its use in 13th-century surnames such as “Greiberd,” “Greyeye,” and “le Greie” may refer to physical appearance.
Larry Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex in England, agrees that “the surnames ‘Black,’ ‘White’ and ‘Brown’ often developed from nicknames applied because of the bearer’s complexion.”
In responding to a question on Ask the Linguist, a feature of the Linguist List forum, he points out that the use of the color red as a surname isn’t as rare as you seem to think.
In Old English, Trask says, the color was pronounced with a long “e” sound, which “gave rise to the surname variously spelled Reade, Read or Reed.”
These surnames stayed the same, but the color term “underwent a shortening of the vowel” and was pronounced and spelled “red.” (The same sound change happened with “bread,” “dead,” and “head,” but the spellings didn’t change.)
“As for ‘purple,’ this word was simply not in use in English as a color term when surnames were being invented,” Trask adds. “All of ‘purple,’ ‘’orange’ and ‘pink’ were late additions to our set of color terms.”
He notes that the use of “Green” as a surname “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.”
(In outdoor shows and pageants, a “Green Man” was someone “dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods or seasonal fertility,” according to the OED.)
The use of the color blue as a surname isn’t all that common, but it’s not unheard of. In fact, the left-handed pitcher Vida Blue and the switch-hitting first baseman Lu Blue were notable Major League baseball players with that surname.
Lower, writing in Patronymica Britannica, suggests that the use of “Blue” as a surname may have arisen in Scotland and that “It is probably derived from the favourite colour of the costume of the original bearer.”
Finally, why don’t we see a lot of people called “Mr. Yellow”? For one thing, light hair is usually described as “blond” or “blonde,” a subject we’ve discussed on our blog.
Although we don’t find a lot of people called “Mr. Blond” or “Ms. Blonde,” we do find quite a few called “Fairchild,” “Fairbairn,” and “Fairfax” (“fax” is an obsolete term for hair).