Brown, Green, Black, White as surnames

English-speaking countries have a whole bunch of colors as surnames. To a Finn like me, this is peculiar - we have no color-names, and the thought of such (in Finnish) brings up mental images of elves or children’s book characters at best.

Can anyone shed some light on the origins of these English names? Also, I’ve noticed a number of African American people with the surname White (musicians like Verdine White, Barry White etc.). Is this a pure coincidence or have some African Americans in the distant past consciously adopted the surname White?

I’m not sure if this sounds clumsily racist or just plain dumb but that is certainly not my intention.

Haha, well, if my dear friend Esa is to be believed, racism is nothing unusual in Finland, so we can chalk any perceived racism up to cultural differences. :stuck_out_tongue:

As far as the name goes. My last name is Brown, brown hair is incredibly prevalent throughout my father’s side of the family, and in many cases, the color names came from hair color, eye color, skin color, color of commonly worn clothing, etc. Kind of like how blacksmiths became “Mr. Smith” and barrel-makers became “Mr. Cooper.”

ETA: Here in Japan, many surnames were given with regard to where your family lived. Hence names likes Ishibashi “stone bridge,” Takada “High rice field,” Yamada “mountain rice field,” etc.

They’re possibly not based on colour originally, but other words that have changed spelling and pronunciation over the generations to match an existing word that happens to be a colour.

This is certainly plausible, but in plenty of cases, such as in my family’s surname, it was based on the name of the color.

Not the best references probably, but on short notice I can bring up

and who can forget

The name has described my family pretty well, I think, so we’ll stick to this etymology.

Spanish does have a few color surnames, but they’re linked to hair color. We have Blanco (white), Moreno (black-haired or dark-skinned), Rubio (blonde), Rojo (red), but no blue, no green, no yellow.

That might be the origin in some cases for English ones, I think.

There’s probably a lot of reasons, but one is that at Ellis Island immigrants often took, or were given, names that were considered to be common, or chose new names on a whim. It was probably common for color names to be selected based on the fact that they were usually ethnically neutral, easy to say and spell and would not draw unnecessary attention. A similar situation applies to why names like Johnson and Jackson are so common.

As for the racial component it’s true that Blacks tend to have more generic names than Whites simply because most blacks a descendants of freed slaves and those slaves took names by choice as well. Any time someone chooses a name it’s a safe bet that they’d pick something simple and common if their goal is to integrate. I’m of the understanding that the surnames of former Presidents are as common as they are amongst Blacks is because they were widely known at the time of the Civil War amongst the uneducated and carried some perceived credibility.

In the US you have to understand that many of our names are self given, most with the goal of integrating and being more “American”. Even people from white European nations would modify their names to make them less ethnic. The Irish often dropped the Mc’s, Mac’s and O’s. Scandinavians switched from the 'sen suffix to the 'son one. Complex German names would be translated to their English counterparts or modified to whatever the closest English word was.

Long story short, when people get to pick their own names they tend to go with a simple one, and there’s little simpler than picking a color.

That is undoubtedly true but only so in the United States. Color names are also plentiful outside of America. A certain MP of the UK comes to mind at the moment, par exemplar…

Of course, you concede that there are a lot of reasons, so yours may explain why there are so many in the US in particular. Having not had the notion to check myself, I’d be interested in knowing what the distribution is between color vs non-color names in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ, etc. Not that there are likely any meaningful conclusions to be drawn, but it’d be fun to see.

This. I completely forgot that Spanish has similar names. As does French to an extent, I believe.

I’ve never met any Mr. or Ms. Blues, and I haven’t heard a surname tied with “Yellow,” but Green is quite common, and it is also a common eye color. It could also have ties to anything from clothing to forestry and/or agriculture.

Yeah, a lot of the surnames invented have been pretty lame, but I couldn’t have done much better at the time, I’m sure.

I took the leap to assume that the OP was largely talking about the US since the majority of the media he’d be exposed to would probably be of American origin combined with his use of the term African-American.

It would be interesting to know what the distribution is. I would extend it to ask if common names are commoner in the US because of that, though the depth of diversity in the US might make it hard to draw conclusions from a simple proportionality of names.

Good suggestions. The immigrant integration view was, in a sense, too obvious to see (as foreign as it is to a Finn). Surnames here concentrate on natural phenomena like ‘stream’, ‘river’, ‘lake’, ‘hill’, ‘mountain’, ‘spruce’, ‘birch’, ‘alder’, ‘bear’, ‘moose’ etc. with customary ‘name-indicator’ suffixes added in most cases.

And to hijack my own thread,


Racism is unusual in Finland today. One gets a grasp of this for instance by noticing that the Finnish Idol is presented by a black gay guy, immensely popular.

ETA: Yes, I was talking largely about the US, although well aware of color-names outside America.

Also, “Green” or “Greene” can be a locality surname, denoting someone who lived on or near the village green or on “the green hill”.

Oh, good god…I’ve now typed “green” enough times to have the word look and sound totally weird to me.

Generally not. Though there were examples of it happening, they were rare. Nearly all people going through Ellis kept their own last names. (All my ancestors did, as a data point; so did my wife. My ex-wife’s ancestors did have a name change, but that was merely dropping the “von”).

The names “Johnson” and “Jackson” are so popular because a large number of black people use them, and they didn’t go through Ellis.

Remember, many of the people working at Ellis Island were members of particular ethnic groups themselves.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that racism really is a problem in Finland. I just have a Finnish friend who likes to imply that it is. Mostly off-the-wall remarks along the lines of “Well, what are the three black guys in Helsinki going to do about it, anyway?” All in good fun, I assure you. :smiley:

Just to let everyone know, Finland is not a racist place, but a wonderful country. Yes, I know, a couple of them might eat reindeer… And they don’t have fjords… or cheap, stylish furniture for the modern 20something… But, come on, they have Lapland! And salmiakki! And kossu! And salmiakki kossu! :wink:

Toxylon, here’s an old thread that may be of relevance.

Is “Del Negro” a Spanish or Italian surname? Or both? I’m sure there are some Argentinians with this surname complicating the matter :smiley:

Also – there’s no Spanish cognate to French “LeVert” / Italian “Verdi”?

Not linguistically maybe, but how how about “Gold”?

Even if Toxylon doesn’t, I enjoyed that thread, thanks.

Oh, and I can’t speak for those reprehensible Argentinians, but my Dictionary of American Family Names says that it is of Italian origin, and, FWIW, my Peruvian friend says he’s never heard it as a Spanish name.

True, plenty of Gold names, and I suppose that is as close to Yellow as you’re going to get. Well, there are names like (La) Blond[e], but those aren’t really English names and probably not quite what the OP had in mind. (Although I do not doubt they are to be found in the US)

ETA: Oops, sorry for the double post, couldn’t contain my excitement.

I know if quite a few color surnames in Dutch:

De Wit(te) - The White One
De Zwart - The Black One
Bla(a)uw - Blue
Groen - Green
De Bruin - Brown
Geels - Yellow

I think that this is because most colors also have a more indirect meaning. De Witte could have been used in the old days not only for people who were white, wore primarily white, or had white hair, but also for people who were pure of heart and virtuous. Groen could mean a forester, or someone who wears green a lot. If you take this in mind, I shudder to think what might be meant by ‘Geels’…

There’s a family in my town named Blue. I couldn’t tell you their ancestry, tho.