Color names: Silver/White/Grey

This post wraps up our series on color names for October’s monthly topic, and looks at names deriving from words for white/fair, silver, grey, and the like.

Because whiteness was strongly associated in many cultures with purity and innocence, it’s no surprise that these words gave rise to names, particularly in cultures (like Italian) that liked to give augurative names — names that express a desire for the child or child’s future.

Looking at names with elements meaning ‘white’, starting at the beginning of the alphabet, we have a masc./fem. pair Albo and Alba. These names have two possible origins: Either Old High German alb ‘elf’ or Latin albus (m.) or alba (f.) ‘white’. The masculine name Albin can either be a derivative of albus or a nickname for Albert. Looking at Latin roots, we also have a single example of Argenta, derived from an identical Latin word meaning ‘silver’.

Next is another masc./fem. pair, Blanch and Blanche. These could also be said to be of Latin origin, but Latin blancus (m.) or blanca (f.) is ultimately a borrowing of Old High Grman blanc(h) ‘white, pale’. This word also occurs in compound names, such as the amazingly beautiful Blanchefleur ‘white flower’.

The next set of names are Celtic in origin, deriving from Old Welsh gwyn (m.) or gwen (f.) ‘white, fair, blessed’. The Welsh roots of the name Gavin are disputed, but the second element may be gwyn. The feminine form gwen is quite common in Welsh names, both as a standalone name and as a part of compounds such as Gwenllian, Madwen, and Winifred. And the origins of the Arthurian heroine name Guinevere go all the way back to the Proto-Celtic root *windo. The same Proto-Celtic root gave rise to a Germanic tribal name, for the Wends. Tribal names are an interesting subset of elements that show up in dithematic Germanic names, and while words for the Wends were not as common as those for the Goths, they still show their traces in the names Wintbert and Wintbald.

Finally, we have the Old English word for ‘white’, hwīt, which was used in compounds such as Whitehelm as well as a standalone name or as a nickname of any of the compounds using hwīt.

The ‘grey’ names are of interest for two reasons; first, because we covered some of them already in the post on Color Names: Brown, as the root of the element brun has aspects of both brown and grey in its meaning; second, because looking beyond those we have only uncertain hypotheses. Despite its familiarity, the origins of the name Caesar are not entirely known. One folk etymology offered in the late Antique Historia Augusta is that it derives from Latin oculis caesiis ‘grey eyes’. And the origin of the fem. name Griselda is often connected with Proto-Germanic *grēwaz ‘grey’, but there is no clear evidence that this name was used in Germanic contexts, or for any other name which uses *grēwaz as a prototheme or deuterotheme.

We hope you enjoyed our first monthly theme! Next month, in conjunction with National Novel Writing Month we will look at ways in which you can improve your character naming practices when writing historical fiction.

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