on why do people have last names as a color and how did they get them?



I’ve heard of Green, Brown, Black, White. I’m just curious was to how the originated as a family name? How many more are there?

In: Other

Different origins for different people’s. It doesn’t always have a single original definition. Green may be originating in the family’s that lived in the greene’s area of a city. Or it may be a persons that wore plainsclothes of the Browns. Or a group that uses a signature Reds feather on a cap. Or some change from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White.

Surnames are a relatively recent invention in English, and when they happened people tended to just pick stuff semi-randomly. Some people chose their profession (Smith, Mason) as their surname. Others their place of birth or place of residence (Halifax, Gainsborough), or some aspect of their religion (Abrams, Godliman), or something else entirely.

Over time, many surnames have mutated, as means of spelling them changed or people deliberately changed them to either better suit their place of residence or to differentiate themselves from other family members, or even just to something that sounds better.

Names that appear to be about colour can have other origins though.

Green as a surname is a modern spelling of Greene, a surname that was given to people who lived in the “greene” of a settlement – that being the centre of it. The name has arisen many times, as every English settlement had a greene and every greene had people living in it, some of whom would inevitably come to be referred to in ways such as “John of the greene”, and then simply “John Greene”.

White and other variants of it are extremely common. They’re some of the oldest surnames in English, and have arisen from multiple routes, mostly converging on the spelling “White”. It’s thought that the first use of white to denote a person was used to describe the skin colour of Vikings and Anglo-saxons. These people had very pale skin, which may be described as white by the original residents, who had darker skin (at least by North European standards). Another major source of the name is French immigrants to Britain across history, which has happened several times. Upon arriving, those with the surname Blanc would typically change it to White so as not to seem quite so French. White has also arisen from place names same as Green has.

Brown comes from a description of physical traits: Brown hair, eyes or skin, which is why it’s quite a common surname for black people in America.

Black has similar origins to White – as a nickname for Celts by Germanic people. Note that languages pick up words for colours slowly – languages first have words for only “dark”, “light” and “red”, only gaining words for green, blue, yellow, orange and various other colours later (often by simply shortening phrases like “the colour of an orange”, which is where the word orange comes from). As such, black and white at this time would have meant more dark and light than specifically black and white, hence why the Celts, who still had white skin but a darker shade of skin and hair than the invading Germans, might be called black. Black has also arisen from some other roots, such as a shortening of the name Blacksmith.

I lived next door to an elderly couple in los angeles with the last name “whitehead”. He had albinism. They both had white hair.

They are typically descriptive names telling a feature about an ancestor. So Green would likely be someone’s eye color, Red hair, Brown both as well as possibly skin tone, etc.

Some of them, like green may also have geographical connections such as someone who lived on or next to a village green, or in a particularly wooded area.

Brown, Black, and White are surnames taken from a profession.

Similar to the surname Smith.

Brownsmiths made things out of copper and brass.

Blacksmiths made things out of iron.

Whitesmiths made things out of tin.

You also find people with the surname gold or silver for the same reason.

Rule 2.

Better to r/askhistorians about this.