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PETER TRUDGILL: The colourful code for names

Kevin De Bruyne. Picture: Visionhaus - Credit: Visionhaus

PETER TRUDGILL on the surprisingly wide array of surnames derived from colours.

Football fans will know that Kevin De Bruyne is the brilliant midfielder who plays for Manchester City as well as for the Belgian national team. They may not all be quite so familiar with other foreign soccer stars such as the Spanish international left-back Alberto Moreno, the German full-back Christopher Braun, the French defender Arnaud Lebrun, or the American midfielder Carli Lloyd – she has played for the USA women’s international team nearly 300 times. Interestingly, all of these players carry essentially the same surname as the former Manchester United and England defender, Wes Brown.

The words bruin, moreno, braun, brun and llwyd mean ‘brown’ in, respectively, Dutch, Spanish, German, French and Welsh. De Bruyne literally means ‘the brown one’. Like the other names, it was originally a nickname given to people because of the colour of their hair or because of their darker-than-usual complexion. In mediaeval times, when family names began to be established and passed on from generation to generation, the nickname turned into a surname. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, almost 400,000 people in Great Britain were recorded in the 2011 census as having the family name Brown or Browne.

Our English-language surname Black (including Blake, Blaik and Blaikie) is also in origin a byname referring to a person’s complexion. In predominantly pale-skinned northern Europe, the nickname – later a family name – signified that a person had skin of a somewhat darker hue than most other people. The Austrian-born conductor Rudolf Schwarz, who was principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, had the equivalent name in German. The surname of Tom Dezwarte, the Belgian road-racing cyclist, also means ‘the black one’ in Dutch. And the corresponding French word appears in the family name of J.B. Lenoir, the American blues singer.

Those of us who learnt to play the piano as children may remember struggling through exercises written by the Austrian composer Carl Czerny, whose name means ‘black’ in Czech. The equivalent and very similar surname in Polish is Czarny. The corresponding adjective in Scottish and Irish Gaelic is dubh, which can be seen in the surnames Duff, Duffy and Macduff. And from the world of cricket, the Australian international fast-bowler Andrew Fekete’s family name means ‘black’ in Hungarian.

Another cricketer with a colour-based family name is the former England fast-bowler Darren Gough, whose surname comes from Welsh word for ‘red’, coch. Like Gough, the English-language surname Read or Reade also indicates that the original bearers of the nickname had red hair or a ruddy complexion; the family names Rudd and Ruddy imply the same thing. The Dutch surnames Rood, De Rood(e), Roode and Roodt also all derive from the word for the colour red. Le Rouge or Lerouge have the same origin in French, and Rosso is the equivalent name in Italian.

Words for the colour white are also frequently employed as surnames, having originally been used as a nickname for people who had a pale complexion or fair hair, or perhaps who were prematurely grey. In Great Britain, the surname White or Whyte is not as common as Brown, but it is common enough, with about 140,000 bearers in the 2011 census. Equivalent family names in other languages include Leblanc in French and De Wit in Dutch, both meaning ‘the white one’, as well as German Weiss, Italian Bianco, Welsh Gwyn, and Polish Bia?y, which simply mean ‘white’.

There are also a handful of people in Britain with the name Yellow, a nickname also based on hair colour. More common is the surname Bowie or Bowey, which comes from the Scottish Gaelic word buidhe, ‘yellow’, which has the same origin.

Happily, however, the family name Green or Greene did not come about because early bearers of the name had green hair or a sickly complexion – it was because they lived near the village green.