Surnames did not exist before the 11th Century in Britain. At that time, people went about with single names or nicknames until taxes were invented and people required further identifiers. The BBC says that after 1066, Norman barons created surnames in England, and most came from a man’s trade (i.e. Weaver), place of origin (i.e. Woods), from a nickname (i.e. Redhead), or a father’s name (i.e. Richardson or MacDonald in Scotland). The bulk of English families had adopted hereditary surnames by 1400, and several of the most common in the UK are associated with colour.
In part one of our series, we covered the histories of the six colour surnames used in Tarantino’s film, Reservoir Dogs, but there are a handful of other colour surnames, each with their own ancient history, that deserve recognition: Black, Gray/Grey, Green, and Purple.
It is believed that the Anglo-Saxon name, Black, originates in Lincolnshire on the mid-east coast of England before 1066, but by 1176, the Blacks moved north to Scotland and some emigrated to Ireland. Scottish Blacks dug in their heels and have a long history, complete with clan tartan: Black Watch.
However, there is much confusion around the meaning of the name. According to the BBC, Black is a form of ”Blake”, which has two derivations: Black as ”a descriptive name for someone of dark appearance, and secondly originating as the Old English word, blac, meaning wan or fair – two completely opposite meanings.” The Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames associates Black with colouring; “from the complexion”, and Behind the Name suggests that the name Black came from the Old English blœc (meaning the colour black), or blac, meaning pale, or perhaps someone who worked with black dye. Ancestry.ca believes that Black is a variant of the Norman, Blanc, and suggests that English speakers had difficulty with the French pronunciation and often ignored it (blanc in French means white, which could explain the confusion in meaning). Either way, Black (along with Brown, White, and Gray) is one of the most common names in Scotland.
The first recorded spelling of this family name is shown as Anschitill Grai in 1086 in Oxfordshire during the reign of King William 1, according to the Surname Database. However, the House of Names says that Grey was first recorded in Northumberland and the story of the Greys begins with a family in the Boernician tribe from around the ancient Scottish-English border area. Grays/Greys have a long and proud history in Scotland and boast their own tartan, coat of arms, and motto: Anchor Fast Anchor.
The meaning of Gray or Grey is believed to have been an Anglo-Saxon nickname for someone with grey hair or a grey beard, derived from the Old English pre-7th Century word “graeg”, or grey. Scottish and Irish Greys were originally the Gaelic “riabhach”, meaning “brindled or grey”, translated to “Grey” or “Gray”. Another possibility is that the name Greye came from Calvados (Normandy) which derived from the Gallo-Roman Gratus, meaning welcome.
The first record of the Anglo-Saxon surname Green, is found in Kent in the south-east corner of England. Geoffrey Green was recorded in taxation records in 1188, during King Henry II’s reign.
Ancestry.ca says that Green is one of the most common and widespread English surnames that could have been a nickname for someone fond of dressing in the colour green (from the Old English grene), or who lived near a village green. Green could be associated with the Green Man in May Day celebrations; the man who played the part of the pre-Christian spirit of nature, often was often depicted surrounded by foliage and symbolic of growth and rebirth.
Have a listen to XTC’s Green Man and watch the Green Man images that accompany the song – he’s more prevalent in mythology, design arts, and architecture than you might think.
The first time the name Purple appears in surviving registers, it is written as Purpoyle, with William Purpoyle as a witness at St. Giles Cripplegate on October 22, 1597. It originates in Norfolk but the meaning is unclear.
Research suggests that the name Purple could have been given to someone with an aristocratic air, or could be theatrical. Surname Database says that Purple could have been a name given to an actor who played parts associated with the small group of people who might have worn purple: a high noble or clergy. Another suggestion is that Purple was an ironic Medieval nickname for someone who was the opposite of a noble.
Purple dye dates back to about 1900 B.C. and was wildly expensive. Tyrian Purple, the colour mentioned in ancient texts, was painstakingly derived from the mucous of the hypobranchial gland of ocean mollusks (often, snails). ”It took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of the pure dye – barely enough for dying a single garment the size of the Roman toga. It’s no wonder then, that this color was used primarily for garments of the emperors or privileged individuals”, says Color Matters.
Onomatology is the study of last name formations and naming practices, and the research into it has been fascinating for this colour surname series. From Greek mythology (Blue) to Dutch royalty (Orange), and from robed monks (Brown) to pagan lore (Green), colour surnames have played an important role in European history.