Tag Archives: purple

Colour name origins, part two

3 Mar

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.


Lincoln Castle

Lincoln Castle, Lincolnshire, UK, where the surname, Black, is said to originate

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.


Clan Gray

Clan Gray tartan and coat of arms

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.


green man

The pagan Green Man, associated with the natural world

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.


King George VI

King George VI in his royal purple robes

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.

Purple is the new blue

10 Mar

You’ve all seen it – in store windows, on your friends, under suits. It’s exciting to see purple for a change. Purple is an interesting colour, different yet close enough to blue that many men feel safe wearing it.

I’m delighted to see more and more men embracing this wonderful range of hues; I’ve been seeing men donning purple shirts, ties, and jackets, sometimes of the velvet variety (gorgeous!). Seeing a man in a purple dress shirt is relieving to me instead of the expectant ordinary white or light blue collar. If purple is indeed moving in on blue’s territory, I welcome this glorious transition.

Colour theory

Though purple isn’t too far a cry from blue, it isn’t too far away from the reds either. In fact, it’s right in the middle of the hot red and the cool blue on the colour wheel.  There are varying degrees of purple, some more red, some more blue, some lighter and some darker. As a result, the range of purple is very diverse from very light lavenders to very dark aubergines, to violets, mauves, magentas, hyacinths and plums in between. To get a sense of the range of red to blue purples, click here for a good chromatic visual.

If you observe the colour wheel above, you can see that mid-way between red and blue is purple, and as you divide purple with red, you see red-purple and looking between purple and blue, you see blue-purple. The countless divisions between these colour markers which, when mixed with black, white, and grey, will give all kinds of new colours like fuschia, mulberry, burgundy, grape, indigo, slate blue, amethyst, iris, or royal purple, to name a few. A purple example you may see for spring 2011 is  “barberry”, a deep fuschia, still technically purple, but closer to the red side.

I believe that the human eye loves colour but the human psyche is bothered by artificial social meanings that colour carries. In this case, purple being between red and blue does not carry the meanings that blue and that controversial tint of red carries (did you guess that I’m referring to pink? to be discussed in a future blog post), which makes it safe for men to appreciate and wear.

My clients know that I like to move them into colours they may never have considered before, and often we find shirts in the purple family that the clients fall in love with.

A little history

The first purple dye originated from a marine source in Tyre, Phoenicia (Lebanon). Through a very laborious process, liquid was extracted from a shellfish (Murex brandaris) that started out as white and gradually changed colour as it was carefully exposed to light. Later, more accessible types of purple dyes were discovered on the islands off of the north west coast of Africa in the form of lichen and also from the Dragon Tree which produced a red resin that made for an excellent dye. Because the dye was so expensive, few could afford it, and it was reserved for the very wealthy.

In Colour: Travels through the Paintbox, Victoria Finlay explains that “[t]he Persians and Jews liked purple greatly, but it was in the Roman and then later in the Byzantine approbation of this dye that it gained its real reputation – when emperor after emperor had their new clothes made from it.”

Finlay found that Cleopatra loved purple and introduced Caesar to this new colour (she loved it so much that the sails of her ship were dyed purple). Caesar brought stuffs of purple back to Rome and wore a “totally purple, sea-snail-dyed, full-length toga. An item only Caesar was allowed to wear.” Following this tradition, Roman and Byzantine emperors wore purple robes, and this chromatic exclusivity was carried into many kingdoms over time, turning purple into the colour of royalty.

More on purple

In modern times, purple, like any other dye colour is readily available and no longer exclusive, but there is something special about purple; I love to wear it and have made a point of collecting purple pieces to intersperse into my wardrobe. People often comment on it. Some artists have a thing for purple too and are associated with the colour:

–> Donny Osmond was famous for his purple socks as a teenager in the 70s. Apparently the socks had nothing to do with him liking the colour, but rather his mother found them on sale and bought him several pairs.

–> Prince, the Purple One, released the Purple Rain album and film in 1984:

–> In The Color Purple, African-American feminist writer, Alice Walker, uses purple  symbolism in her story about Celie, a poor, uneducated black woman in the southern US during the 1930s. Celie was badly abused as an adolescent and lives a difficult life. She sees herself through other people’s eyes which keeps her from seeing the beautiful aspects of life.

Purple is associated with pain and suffering in the story.  Her step-daughter-in-law, Sophie is beaten until her face is swollen and described as the colour of eggplant. Celie’s friend and lover, Shug, tells her when they are standing in a field of purple flowers to look at the flowers and embrace their beauty. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” After learning this, Celie has a better respect for life and everything it has to offer.

–> Rock history: Purple Haze is a fantastic Jimi Hendrix song!

If you like purple and you’re into online shopping, I happened upon this great purple website for men’s apparel with all sorts of goodies from shirts to shorts to purple camouflage gear.

Everyone can, and indeed should wear purple; there’s something grand about it, it draws the eye and makes us stand out from the crowd. Try turning to purple when you would normally look for blue, gentlemen, feel good in your gorgeous new hues, and of course, rule your kingdoms well.