Green, Brown, Even Black

Why are some colors very common surnames, while others are rarely used? For example, there are many Greens and Browns, a few Blacks and even some blues. But there aren’t very many, say, Reds or Yellows. Why is this? Why are some colors very popular surnames, while others…are not?

I suspect some “color” surnames may be abbreviations of names that derive from professions, such as blacksmith (from which, of course, we also get the name Smith) or greengrocer (or some other profession involving vegetation). I can’t think of any red or yellow professions, however.

Some are disguised by non-parallel changes in language: Reed and Reid are both red. Some are represented in synonyms: Gold is supposedly after yellow-haired people, and Yellow itself is attested as a surname, though it’s obviously not common now if it even exists. In English there are also French yellow-words (blond > Blount) and Irish (buidhe > Boyd). Blewett and Blewitt are diminutives of blue.

Derivations from Reaney & Wilson’s “A Dictionary of English Surnames.”

To a certain degree, this is country specific. Roth (red in German) and Blau (blue) are reasonably common Ashkenazi Jewish names, and for all I know they could be common in Germany as well.

My understanding is that color names were either arbitrarily chosen (I’ve heard that there were entire regions in Germany where all the Jews were named Klein (little), Gross (big), Weiss (white) or Schwartz (black) by the administrators assigning last names) or were descriptors for the first member of the family to bear that name.

Most of them either come from hair color or from professions. The hair colors are pretty obvious, and then you’ve got Black = blacksmith, White = tinsmith.

Don’t some of them refer to where a person lived (Hill, Woods, Meadows)? And doesn’t Green fall into this category?

It’s entirely possible. The thing to remember is that there isn’t a single derivation of most surnames. While some Reeds will be derived from red, others will be derived from reed, just as the names Bush, Rose and Byrd derive from natural objects.

So some Greens will be derived from the colour of their eyes or the clothes they worse or the colour they went on the boat trip to Ireland. And some Greens will be derived from people who lived on or near the village green, or the people who tended the village green or the local poacher. Others will be the result of changes to older names that were once more common that were altered for any number of reasons, names such as Greengrass, Greenwood or Greentree.

Even professional names such as Baker or Smith need not imply that the person’s ancestors ever held such a position. It may have been a sarcastic name applied to someone who thought they knew more about baking or smithing than the actual Smith or Baker.

The point being that all people with a shared surname don’t have a single origin point.

I checked Intelius to see if I could find anyone with the less common color surnames.

There’s 96 Yellows in New York State (for some reason, Intelius wouldn’t let me do a search on all states)

101 Purples in NYS

250 Reds in NYS

So the other color surnames do exist, even if they’re very rare.

Man, I want my last name to be Purple. Or Turquoise. Awesome.

“Red,” or Daeng, is a common guy’s nickname over here.

That’s deep.

Note that while the House of Orange, and Orange as a surname, derive from the medieval Oranien via Dutch Oranje, and the color name derives from the fruit, which was in origin the Sanskrit naranga, the House of Orange early on adopted the color as its own livery color. This sort of convergence is not at all uncommon.

I was once acquainted with a priest, Fr. Scarlett. Several color names associated with precious and semi-precious stones, which are also surnames, such as (Jack) Ruby and (John) Jasper, are attested. Note that red as adjective also exists as “rudd(y)” and “ruf(o)us” – both not uncommon as surnames.

Or, more commonly, “reddy” and “russell”.