Readers reply: why are Brown, White or Black common surnames but not Red, Blue or Purple?

Show caption Actually there is a Mr Blonde, Mr. White, Mr Pink, Mr Blue … Photograph: Rank Film/Allstar Notes and queries Readers reply: why are Brown, White or Black common surnames but not Red, Blue or Purple? The long-running series in which readers answer other readers’ questions on subjects ranging from trivial flights of fancy to profound scientific and philosophical concepts Sun 17 Apr 2022 14.01 BST Share on Facebook

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In English-speaking cultures, why are Green, Brown, White, Black or Grey the only common surnames that are colours? I have never met or heard of anyone with a surname such as Red, Purple or Blue. Is this the case in other languages? Stephen Riley, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Readers reply

All the purple people were eaten. TopGyre

The late Rabbi Lionel Blue is an example. Perhaps someone knows the origin of the name? Janchan

According to the rabbi himself, it was the other way round. Father came to England and needed a new surname. Noticed people called Brown, Black, etc. Personally he liked the colour blue, so took that name, only later to realise that no one else was called Blue. Pedant27A

Blue is a surname! Just ask Mrs Blue, my great granny. More common in Scotland than England, though. Regularsubscriber

One of the best blue names is Harald Bluetooth, a Viking king. Oddly, Bluetooth technology is named after him. ClaretEile

Weirdly, there seems to be a concentration of Reds around Inverness. Yellows in Yorkshire, Purples in Norfolk and Blues in the mountains of Mourne, too … Svalborealis

What about Miss Scarlett and Colonel Mustard? DrEd

Years ago, I worked in the MoD in Whitehall. There was a yellow directory that listed the names and numbers of people who worked in the MoD, including officers. One day, a colleague and myself were bored and going through it. We discovered a Captain Scarlet. So we rang him up. He picked up the phone and said: “Hello, this is Captain Scarlet.” To which I replied in a very deep voice: “This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us,” and then quickly put the phone down. Very childish but we laughed for hours. THeEgoHasLanded

Actually, there is and English surname that means red. It’s Gough derived from the Welsh word for the colour red, “coch”. Berwyn Roderick

Rogers comes from the french rouge or Rougier as a name so we do have red. fworcs

The surname Russell is also believed to be derived from the Norman rus, meaning red (red-haired), and also an archaic name for a red fox. MrsLessing

Were not the Norse Rus (red-haired Viking ancestors of the Normans) also responsible for the founding of Rus-sia (in Kyiv)? How appropriate that the Russians subsequently became the “reds”. ITGuyReader

My surname is Redhead, so I get the comments about my red hair. It’s a Viking nickname, and the family hail from Northumbria, one of the areas where they landed and lived. My mum’s maiden name is also colour-based: Fairhurst. Julia Redhead

My mind went immediately to Red Cloud, the Oglala Lakota chief. Now, of course, his name originated in the Lakota language, but the United States is an English-speaking culture, and Red Cloud was his name in that language. There was also Red Shirt, from the same people. David Antrobus

The surname Reid/Read/Reade comes from the Anglo-Saxon for red, and probably referred to hair colour. Red and russet are common surnames in other countries: Leroux, Rosso/Rossi. Black refers to swarthy skin, or black hair; and maybe Brown, too: Lenoir and Lebrun in French. A famous German soprano had the surname Schwarzkopf, referring to black hair. Gray/Grey refers to hair or beard colour, and is a translation from a fairly common Irish or Gaelic surname. (The surname Glass is a transliteration of Irish glás, which can mean grey, blue or green according to context.) Green(e) refers to the verdure where someone lived: Verdi is a famous Italian name. German has a variety of surnames containing Grün. Yellow is not an Anglophone surname, but French has LeJaune. Viol[l]et is also a French surname. Anthony Weir

Black was common for blacksmiths, Brown for tanners, White for clothmakers, so we were told in school. lissameliss

From around the 12th century, surnames developed from patronymics or matronymics, occupation, nicknames, proximity to a place, whether a local landmark or a named village or town, and descriptions. So Brown, White, Black or Grey easily came from hair colour, complexion – or, in the case of Grey and White, age. The derivation of a surname may be concealed by its being from an occupation no longer common, or in an old form of English or from, say, Norman French. So a Fletcher was an arrow-maker, a Chapman was a pedlar and one called Atwood someone living atte (near) a wood. Mallory seems to be Anglo-Norman for “unlucky”! (My own surname suggests that wool-carding ancestors never bothered to progress to being Weavers, Websters or Webbers.) Jane Matilda Thick

European family names are often derived from personal characteristics, such as hair colour or trade. Some names are obvious, like Carpenter or Baker, Short or Long. Some colours might be either. Black might be colouring or could be the trade of a Blacksmith. White could be the colour or, a trade name that fell out of use long ago, a Whitesmith, who worked with tin or lead. Green or other place names such as Hill are mostly assumed to be where they lived, as in village green. But there might be a suggestion of trade as for a greengrocer. leadballoon

A Green I knew – his family were originally Greenbaum – was Jewish. A lot of Jews are Green-something or Gold-something, or even Roth-something, relating to their profession. Some of them in the UK shortened their names, especially during the first world war, when they were perceived as possibly being German due to their German-sounding surnames, and therefore likely to get their shop windows smashed. ohanyname

Hate to ask a stupid question, but where are all the blondes? If we’re pinning much of this down to hair colour, the browns, blacks, whites, greys and reds/Reids/Rosses seem to fit the formula, but where are the blondes? CDAEvans

Blond(e) is the French term, so not established as an English name. elitemetropolitain

Perhaps found in family names with “fair” in them? Mornex74

My middle name, Boyd, means blond or yellow. alexito

The UK phone directory includes surnames such as Puce, Mint, Cerise, Cornflower and Mulberry. loudmouth

No one ever seems to have been called Beige. SpleendeParis

Gorm is often a nickname in Scottish Gaelic, blue-eyed (gorm in nature can also mean dark or matt). The surname Gormley might be it; it would follow the pattern that makes Donal(d) into Donnelly in English spelling. coultetscandi

In Italy we have as surnames: Bianchi (white), Neri (black), Verdi (green), Viola (violet), Marrone (brown), Porpora (purple), Rosa (pink), Rossi (red), but no grey. Annina Lubbock

Rossi (red) is thought to be the most common surname. However, I have not heard of Blu or Azzurri (blue) or Gialli (yellow). Viola (purple) does exist, though. Paolo Tomasi

There are several colourful surnames in Spanish: Añil (indigo), Blanco (white), Castaño (chestnut), Celeste (light blue), Dorado (golden), Monegro (contraction of Montenegro: black hill), Moreno (brown), Negrín (little black), Pardo (brown), Rojas (red), Rosado (pink), Rubio (blond), Morado (purple). Jordi P Amezcua

In French, it is much the same as in English, except that Red is more common: Roux, Leroux, etc. Otherwise: Blanc, Leblanc, Blondel. Noir, Lenoir, Noiret. Lebrun, Brun.

In German, Braun and Schwarz are obviously common. Blau is quite common as a name in German, I think (can also mean drunk). The red may be more subtle: Rotmund. But then again Schwarzkopf or Weisskopf are pretty clear.

In a traditional areas of rural Switzerland, until recently it was common for (white) people to hold up a piece of their hair and say: “je suis noir” simply to emphasise that they might be easily recognised through their hair colour. Derek Christie, Geneva

Rood (red) and Blauw (blue) occur as surnames in the Netherlands. Also Groen (green), Geel (yellow), Oranje (orange). Willem Driessen

In Dutch, Paars (purple) doesn’t exist as a surname, though Purper and especially Purperhart (purple heart) is a common surname from Suriname. skdeurloo

Hereditary surnames were common in the Catholic south but not so much in the Protestant north. When the Netherlands was occupied by the French, Napoleon ordered a census and everyone had to give a family name. As an act of rebellion, many offered rather rude names which were dutifully noted down and still exist today. Names such as Poepjes (little shit), Naaktgeboren (born naked) and Naaktinhetveld (naked in the field). Omontaise

In Danish, we have brown, white … but not blue or pink. Anders

In Norway, Rød (red) is a fairly common surname, although it has nothing to do with the colour. Rød means “a place that has been cleared” eg in the woods, to make space for a farm and a plot of arable land. hildepilde

In Czech, there is blue (Modry), there is almost a purple (Fiala – whereas fialovy means purple). And Zeleny (green) is very common, you might recognise a famous holder of a similar name in current events (Zelenskiy). BlairwasagoodPM

In Hungarian there is the surname Vörös (red/deep red); one of Hungary’s most famous poets is Vörösmarty, while another (old form) is Weöres. Staying with writers, Krasznahorkai is from a Slavic root (krasni) meaning red, and indeed Krasny, or some variation on that, is also a family name in Slavic countries. Sárga (yellow) is also a Hungarian family name, though not common, as is Szőke (blonde/fair). Me, I’ve been struggling with my surname for years now! Paul Thatcher, Budapest

In Romanian, Roşu (meaning red) is a surname, too. My conjecture is that these colour surnames are based on the most common colours encountered in a specific culture. For example, red is very common in Romania’s national folk costumes. We don’t have Grey and Brown as surnames; only Red, Black, White and rarely Green. Maria-Luiza Apostolescu

Roussos and Roussakis (red) as well as Kitrinos/Kitrinakis (yellow) are common Greek surnames. sirah7767

The common Chinese name Huang means yellow. Joe, Canada

蓝 (lán) meaning blue can be a family name in China. Liuzhoukaf

Hong? Red, I seem to remember. Must admit I don’t personally know anyone with that name though. BluebellWood

Long ago in Japan, the Lady Murasaki wrote what is said to be the world’s first novel. In Japanese, murasaki means purple. Janchan

And the Japanese surname Akai means red. KrisW1001

Someone (Victor Borge or PDQ Bach, I forget which) liked to point out that famous Italian composers Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossetti are less highbrow sounding as Joe Green and Jake Red. There’s a noted American Sherlockian, Peter Blau, whose name is German for Blue. Less common, certainly, but there are some. I’d imagine that Brown, White, and Black (and Grey) originally are descriptors of skin tones (or maybe hair colours – although you’d expect more reds and some yellows, in that case), and green an occupational name for someone dealing with growing plants. The main sources of last names are personal descriptions, occupations, patronymics and places-of-origin. The list of names sent out for picking from by the Kaiser were more variegated with lots of names such as goldstone, redstone, feather or bearman that probably came off the list without any particular connection to the recipient. You get a lot of reds and yellows in with all those goldens and rosens. Bernstein means amber, but isn’t the colour amber – it means burn-stone. Ruth Berman

I was told by a Welshman (called Jones) that old Welsh surnames virtually disappeared after the first census (I don’t know when that was). He told me that most Welsh people were illiterate and the census details were mainly recorded by the English, who couldn’t spell the Welsh names, so they asked for the Christian name of the person’s father. If it was John, they recorded Jones, Evan became Evans and David became Davis. The names of the aristocracy would have survived, the obvious one being Llewellyn. carolburrows