As someone who is very aware of colour and thinks about it a lot, I was struck with a couple of men I recently met whose surnames caught my attention. Mr. Brown and Mr. Gray made me stop to think and I began to wonder about their last names and the concept of colour surnames. This led me to memories of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 blockbuster film, Reservoir Dogs. Before discussing the movie, let’s find out about European last names and how they came about.
According to the BBC, surnames come from many sources, and prior to the 11th Century in Britain, people were known by single personal names or nicknames. Over time as the population increased, people needed further identifiers, so names like William the short, Henry from Sutton, Edward the butcher, John son of Richard, or Roger of the wood were adopted, which made trades, nicknames, locations and places of origin, and father’s names the beginnings of surnames. Last names also became necessary when taxation was introduced to England in the form of Poll Tax.
Colour surnames have a rich and interesting history, but for Tarantino, his Reservoir Dogs characters took the colour surname idea from a 1974 heist movie called, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In this film, Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown, take a subway train full of riders hostage in exchange for what was then a large amount of money. Reservoir Dogs featured six characters with colour name aliases: Mr. Blond (played by Michael Masden), Mr. Blue (played by Edward Bunker), Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino), Mr. Orange (played by Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (played by Steve Buscemi), and Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel). Little did Tarantino know how deep the roots of his character’s colour surnames went.
Our first Reservoir Dog, Mr. Blond, poses something of a problem, since blond isn’t a recognized as a proper colour. Blond is hair colour, but surprisingly, Blond is also a surname. The Blonds, now more well-known as the Blouts or the Blunts, can trace their heritage to the Normans. Sir Robert de Blount and his brother, Sir William de Blount assisted the Duke of Normandy to conquer the Saxons at Hastings in 1066.
According to Ancestry.ca, the name derives from a Jewish nickname for a fair-haired person, which influenced by the German and Yiddish, and there is a French influence: blund from the Old French. The name was probably given to someone with blond hair.
The equivalent of Blond as a surname on the colour spectrum would be Gold, an Anglo-Saxon family from Suffolk, eastern England, where the family held a seat since early times. Like Blond, the name Gold has English, German, and Yiddish roots. In this case, the name may have been associated with someone’s trade like a goldsmith, or perhaps given to someone with golden hair. Another source suggests that Gold comes from the Old English pre-7th Century Golda (masculine) or Golde (feminine), given to people with bright golden hair.
The story of the Blue Man reaches back into Greek mythology: Glaukos, a fisherman, was transformed into a sea-god after eating a magical herb. His skin was glossy blue, his face long and grey with curly green hair and a beard; small eyes, flat nose, and large mouth, long arms and fish tails. The Blue Man, known to the Scots as Gille Gorm (Blue Lad – gorm means blue in Scottish Gaelic) may derive from Mac Gille Ghuirm, “son of the blue lad”.
In the 14th Century in Kintail, a mountainous area of the northwest highlands of Scotland, Kerling, the daughter of Hugh Fraser, the Laird (estate owner) of Lovat, desired a lover. She sang a song to the Blue Man, who walked out of the waves to her. The lovers conceived a child, and it was from this union that the surname Blue originates. In fact, Glaukos is said to have spawned a race of Glaukidai or Hoi Glaukoi (the Blue Men) who live in underwater caves. Their numbers are largest in the waters around Scotland, where Glaukos went after leaving the Mediterranean. Today, some clan members believe the blood of the Blue Man flows through their veins.
The ancient Scottish kingdom of Dalriada is thought to be the home of the Blue family and the name is first found on the isle of Arran, where a family seat was held since ancient times.
The Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames… cites Brun, likely the root of Brown, as a personal name in the 1085 Doomsday book (the Doomsday book is England’s first public record, ordered by King William I). Brun is found in German, Middle English, and Old English; Bruni is from the Old Norse. The name was probably ”a nationalistic or tribal nickname for a person with a brown complexion or hair, although it may have also referred to someone who habitually wore brown clothing, such as a monk or a cleric” (source).
Irish Browns originate from 12th Century Normandy, and western Irish Browns are said to descend from a knight named Hugo le Brun. These Browns formed one of the old merchant Tribes of Galway, but in this instance, the spelling is Browne; Brown is first seen in Northumberland in the north of England in 1169.
If you’ve ever noticed an unusual amount of people wearing orange the same day, chances are, the Dutch football team has a match on. Orange has always been and will always be associated with Holland, and that’s because it is the colour of Dutch royal family, who owned land in Orange, southern France. The royal family became politically associated with the House of Orange.
The surname Orange was first introduced into England by one of the followers of William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066. This William became the Protestant King, William de Orange (not to be confused with William of Orange, King of England in the 17th Century). In the UK, Orange family roots are in Buckinghamshire, England.
Surname Pink, and its derivatives, Pinch, Pinck, Pincke, Pinks, Penk, and Penke, are English names from the Medieval period, derived from the pre-7th Century Old English word, pinca. This is a nickname surname that is said to have been given to a ”bright, chirpy person, thought to be as active and cheerful as a chaffinch” (source). Another theory is that Pink was a nickname for a small person, or a diminutive of the Sorbian (Slavic) word, pien, meaning log or tree stump, suggesting a short or stout person. Pink may also be a variant spelling for a blacksmith, ”an onomatopoeic word imitating the sound of hammering which was perceived as pink(e) pank.”
The surname Pink was first recorded in Yorkshire, where the Pink family was listed in pipe rolls (financial records of the 12th Century by the English treasury) in 1176.
White is a common name in the UK, derived from the Middle English Whit. The origin of the name is thought of as way to describe an early family member who had white hair or a very pale complexion, common among the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples of early Britain. Another possible origin of White is the White-smith, or an early form of tinsmith.
The earliest record of the name White in Scotland is Uuiaett Hwite in the late 11th Century, predating the Norman invasion.
And that is the story of Tarantino’s colour surnamed characters. Four more colour surnames with equally rich histories will be discussed in the next post: Black, Grey, Green, and Purple.