Tag Archives: Scotland

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.

Black

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.

Gray/Grey

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

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.

Purple

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.

Reservoir Dogs and colour surnames, part one

18 Feb

Reservioir Dogs

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.

Mr. Blond/Gold

Ancient gold Anglo-Saxon coin

Ancient gold Anglo-Saxon coin

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.

Mr. Blue

Glaukos Pontios

Blue has origins in ancient Greek mythology. This is Glaukos Pontios, Blue One of the Sea.

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.

Mr. Brown

The name Brown may have derived from someone who wore brown a lot, like a monk.

The name Brown may have derived from someone who wore brown a lot, like a monk.

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.

Mr. Orange

house of Orange

Dutch House of Orange flag.

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.

Mr. Pink

pink hammer 9th century

Pink may have originated from the sound of a hammer hitting a nail in the 7th century.

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.

Mr. White

WAS

The name White may have been used to describe an Anglo-Saxon with white hair.

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.