Dear Language Nerd,
I know a bunch of people with the last names Blue, Brown, or White, but outside of Reservoir Dogs I never heard of a Mr. Pink or Mr. Orange. Why are some colors normal names and others not?
-Freddy Fuchsia (I wish)
Dear Rainbow Authority,
To really explain this, I gotta get into where last names in general come from. Which is fortunately hella interesting, so yeah, let’s go.
We tend to take last names more seriously than first names nowadays – how many goofy nicknames do you have from people playing with your first name vs your last? – but of the two, first names have the longer tradition. In the little communities that most people lived in for most of history, you just didn’t need last names. There’s no reason to specify which “Katherine” you’re talking about until there are at least two Katherines in the neighborhood.
And even when there are a handful of Harrys, you still don’t need a rigorous system for referring to one or the other. Instead, people got bynames. These were little ad hoc means of singling out one person – maybe you’ve got one Hank who’s a baker, another Hank who lives by the meadow, and then another who’s known for his sunny disposition. If the neighbors all use these characteristics to refer to them, they’re bynames: “Hank (the) Baker,” “Hank at Lee,” “Hank (the) Good Fellow.”*
These little clarifiers mostly fall into one of four groups, the first being relationship to other people. Patronymic names, showing that some dude is the son of some other dude, show up all over the place: the Englishiest is “Harold Johnson” for “Harold, son of John,” but “Mac” means the same thing in Irish and Scottish names, and this is the “bin” or “ibn” of Arabic names, too. And that’s all well and good, but back in the day there was way more variety. “Carolmother”? “Fredbrother”? “Dwaynestepdaughter”? Heck yes.
Next we get jobs and occupations, such as the indomitable “Smith.” Everybody’s gotta eat, and that means lots of opportunities for trade monikers: Baker, Fletcher, Brewster, Webster (the feminine of “weaver”).
Another big batch is names based on place. These often refer to local places, like “Norrington,” which means “north of town,” or “Hill,” which means, uh, the person lived by a hill. If someone moved to a new city, they might gain their hometown as a byname, and immigrants might have their home country – “Frank” for France, for example.
And finally, we come to nicknames. These are the names that are pure description, based on someone’s looks, personality, or other odd characteristic. Here are the Biggs and the Smalls, the Fairweathers and the Prouds, and here, at last, are the colors. By this point, maybe it’s already clear why some colors were common names. Black, white, and brown are normal for hair and complexion, and blue and green were probably clothing or eye colors. Your standard Medieval England village was less likely to have anyone frequently displaying, say, magenta.
Originally, these bynames were stuck to one person, and even then they were malleable. If somebody moved house or changed jobs, for example, the byname could change, and unless all the kids in the family took up the same trade and lived in the same house, they’d get new bynames. Relationship names had to be worked out again for new kids. And nicknames flittered about like butterflies, same as today. A kid named “the Black” due to a teenage emo phase** could be renamed once they moved on. Hell, one wild night could get you dubbed “Bevin” (“Drinker”) until it stopped being funny. But there’d be no reason to refer to your children as Bevins, too; they had the right to go out and earn their own terrible bynames by making their own embarrassing mistakes.
It took a long time for names to become permanent and passed down in a family, and this change was probably instigated by bureaucracy. It’s harder to tell if Sally paid her taxes if she’s “the red” one year and “by the water” the next. So while you might not know exactly how your ancestor came by a name – “White” for white hair? super pale? a baker covered in white flour? next to white (clear) water? a purveyor of dairy products, the original white meat? – if it’s a surname now, you can tell one thing: at some point, the Man got to him or her too.
The Language Nerd
*I’m using modern spelling and names throughout the post, so we can stay focused on the principles of naming and not get distracted by individual etymologies.
**Did medieval teens have emo phases? Seems like they had just cause.
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This post is just a big batch of P.H. Reaney. The guy is a name machine. If you’re intrigued, check out his Dictionary of English Surnames. If you’re merely piqued, here’s a pair of surname databases that’ll let you search for whatever amusingly-named acquaintances you may have. And dairy products being called “white meat” is from this paper.