Friday, August 24, 2007

What Color is Your Name?

Our overview of the history of surnames or last names in English continues to be a fascinating one. Initially, we talked about the need to create surnames (last names) and how occupations lent themselves to the task. In this posting, we’ll look at how some other commonly used English surnames were derived from colors, nature and animals.

"Colorful" Surnames

Many additional surnames are simply derived from the name of a color. Colors were an important part of family crests of nobles, noblemen and the wealthy. The crest of my family name is azure (blue) and gold in color. The more “common” folk of the sixteenth century then, although probably without a family crest of their own, went with "adopting" a color as a type of surname as in these examples.

Black – infrequently spelled with a double “a”
Grey – can be spelled with an “a” or an “e”
Brown – sometimes spelled with an “e” at the end
Green(e) – can be spelled with or without the “e”
White – infrequently spelled with a “y” instead of “i”
Whitewood – a color plus object surname
Reid – a Germanic spelling form of the color red
Redmon – aka “Redman

Surnames of Animals

On occasion, names of animals were also adopted as surnames. Animals were thought to have special abilities which could be “willed” or “gifted” to humans who “adopted” them. Some of the more commonly known ones are the following examples.

Wolf – both feared and revered throughout Europe, adopted as a surname to denote a savage or fierce person or family

or Foxx – can be spelled with one “x” or two
Bear or Baer
Leone (Lion) – often pronounced “le-o-ne” in three syllables
Byrd – spelled usually with “y”, but sometimes with “i”
Crab, Krabb or Crabbe - two of these spellings (with "C") are still widely used
Wessel – a spelling derivation from the animal name “weasel”
Steed or infrequently Stedman– means a horse or stallion, sometimes "Steed" is spelled with an “e” on the end
Wrenn – on occasion spelled with only one “n”
Swann - usually spelled with a double “n”, but infrequently with only one “n”
Finch – infrequently spelled with an extra “e” on the end
Gill – the organ that a fish uses to breathe has a French spelling of “Gille”
Finn – An appendage of a fish adopted as a surname uses a double “n”

In considering the selection, development and evolution of surnames in English, a list of surnames ( helps to offer us some enlightenment as to not only the variety of surnames that became available, but also their frequency and derivations. The history of surnames or last names, in English is indeed a continually fascinating one. In the next related article of this series entitled, “Sins of the Fathers”, we’ll look at how some other commonly used English surnames were derived from famous or noteworthy predecessors and family heritage or ancestors.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an English language teaching and learning expert author and university professor in Cali, Colombia. Live your dreams in paradise, find romance, high adventure and get paid while travelling for free. For more information on entering or advancing in the fascinating field of teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language send for the no-cost pdf Ebook, “If You Want to Teach English Abroad, Here’s What You Need to Know”, by sending an e-mail with "free ELT Ebook" in the subject line. For comments, questions, requests, to receive more information or to be added to his free TESOL articles and teaching materials mailing list, e-mail:

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