Tag Archives: color names

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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Color names: Black

We’ve made our way through the rainbow, but there are still two colors left. In this post, we look at names deriving from various medieval words for ‘black’ or ‘dark’.

In terms of words directly meaning ‘black’ or ‘blackness’, we have examples from Latin, Greek, and Gaelic which gave rise to names.

Latin nigellus is a diminutive of niger ‘black’. Nigellus, Nigel, and variants have a complicated relationship with the Gaelic name Niall (both found in English as Neil), and we have not completed the entry for this name — look for it in a future edition!

Greek μελανία ‘darkness, blackness’ is recognizable as a modern name, Melanie. The name was used only rarely medievally.

Old Irish dub ‘black’ was more commonly used as a nickname, but people familiar with Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play will be familiar with a name that uses that word: Macduff, which literally means ‘son of the black [man]’.

Looking beyond just ‘black’, Latin also has a number of words referring to darkness with respect to skin color or complexion, many of which gave rise to names.

The Latin word Maurus originally referred to an inhabitant of Mauritania or North Africa more generally, but due to the complexion of these inhabitants, the word developed a secondary sense of ‘dark brown, black’ by the post-classical period. [1] Mauro and its derivative Maurice (from Latin Mauritius ‘Moorish’, Mauritanian’) were found throughout Europe.

Another Latin word which originally referred to something other than a color and then developed a transferred meaning of ‘dark-colored, swarthy’ is aquila ‘eagle’. Aquila was used as a masculine name, and a diminutive form, Aquilina as a (relatively rare, early) feminine name.

Lastly, for this post, is the name Fuscian, deriving from Latin fuscus ‘dark, swarthy’, the name of an early saint.


[1] “Moor, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 21 October 2015.


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Color names: Blue and Purple

We’re combining blue and purple into one post because of the difficulty there can be in knowing just how to classify one interim term that gave rise to a number of different names: violet!

Violet itself is of Old French origin, and thus its primary use is in places with connections to France. In the 16th C, it was quite popular in Scotland. The root word is Latin viola, itself used as a name. In connection with a research project on the roots of Shakespearean names, the editorial team specifically investigated this name before the publication of the current edition, finding out that it was unexpectedly popular in Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine.

It wasn’t only the Latin word for the flower that was used in names; the Greek compound of ιολη ‘violet’ and ανθος ‘flower’ was used, recognizable in the modern spellings Yolanda and Violante. These tended to be used more in western Europe than the Latinate counterpart mentioned above.

The next two names that fall under this post’s purview also have a connection with flowers. Greek ὑάκινθος was the name of both a flower and a precious gem of blue color, probably sapphire, and gave rise to both masculine and feminine names. Hyacinth was used intermittently in France, Italy, and Portugal; there was also a Polish saint by the name so while we haven’t found any Polish examples yet, this is due more likely to the fact that we have yet to start in on Polish names in any systematic fashion (the current edition has only 107 citations from Poland) than anything else. Hyacinthe was somewhat rarer; we have, to date, a single example from early Italy.

Finally, we have one surprise: Indigo. The word, referring to a blue dye imported from India, only entered the English language in the 16th C, so its occurrence as a given name at the very end of that century, in England, is extremely unusual. It’s also a name well worth considering for modern revival — unusual, but recognizable, and evocative of lovely things.


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Color names: Green

Green is a curious color to consider its impact on the medieval European name pool as it (like orange and purple) is one of those colors that wasn’t clearly differentiated from others, and that many languages do not have words that differentiate ‘green’ from, e.g., ‘blue’ [1,2,3]. So it is not surprising that we have few names which derive from words for ‘green’: What is surprising is that we have two candidates of wholly different origin.

The first name we consider in this context is Emerald, a rare gemstone name appearing in 16th C France (as the name of a Florentine woman living in Lyon). The root Latin word, smaragdos, originally referred to any green precious stone, not only emeralds but also beryl and jasper, and the word continued to be ambiguous medievally. In the King James translation of the Bible, emerald is used as a translation of Hebrew nōphek, Greek ἄνθραξ, Vulgate carbunculus ‘carbuncle’, a type of gem not otherwise clearly identified [4].

While taking names from gemstones is a common pattern in modern English naming practices, names deriving from gems of any kind were rare in medieval Europe. This name therefore stands out as an unusual example, both for being a gemstone name and for the color it invokes.

The other name we can discuss under the color ‘green’ also derives from a Latin word, also is rare, and also was used in Italian contexts: Viridis, identical to a Latin word meaning ‘fresh, green; blooming, youthful’. Here ‘green’ is used more metaphorically than literally, but this is the word that gave rise to the color term for ‘green’ in many Romance languages, e.g., French vert, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish verde.


[1] Delwin T. Lindsey & Angela M. Brown, “Color Naming and the Phototoxic Effects of Sunlight on the Eye”, Psychological Science 13, no. 6 (2002): p. 506.

[2] Paul Kay, “Color”, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9, nos. 1/2 (1999): p. 34.

[3] Heidi A. Lazar-Meyn, “Color Naming: ‘Grue’ in the Celtic Languages of the British Isles”, Psychological Science 15, no. 4 (2004): p. 288.

[4] “emerald, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. http://www.oed.com/

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Color names: Gold

Words meaning ‘yellow’ do not appear to be especially productive in terms of contributing to the development of names. And if you think about it, why should it be — when there are words meaning ‘gold’ instead!

(Well, onomastically and linguistically, that’s a very bad argument: We do not know the thought process driving the use of color terms in names, whether in dithematic Germanic constructions or derivatives of Latin and Greek color terms, and so drawing conclusions of this sort is not well-grounded. But it makes for a nice story about why we’re looking at words relating to ‘gold’ instead of words relating to ‘yellow’.)

Proto-Germanic *gulþą ‘gold’ turned into gold in both Old English and Old High German, and the element was used as both a prototheme and a deuterotheme (though it was more common as a prototheme in names of insular origin and more common as a deuterotheme in names of continental origin), and it was used by both men (cf. Goldwine, Mangold, and Meingold) and women (cf.Goldiva).

“What about Latin aureus or aurum?” we hear you ask. This word was used, rarely, as a personal name in early France, both as a masculine name (Aureas) and a feminine name (Aurea), and it may be the root of the Roman gens Auria, to which derivative forms such as Auriana can be traced. Another name often associated with the Latin word(s) is Aurelius, which was also originally the name of a Roman gens. An earlier form of this name was Auselius, which may call into question the relationship with aureus — except that the earlier form of aurum was ausum, from Proto-Italic *auzom (and in fact, in writing this post we have revisited the etymology for the name; the next edition will have that entry updated!). This may be a name where we can never be entirely sure if the connection is true or if it was made post hoc.

Looking beyond Latin and Germanic roots, Proto-Slavic *zoltъ ‘gold’ was also used in both masculine and feminine names, though we don’t — yet! — have any examples of any of them.


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Color names: Brown

If we were following the colors of the rainbow, after doing red, we’d next do orange. But, not surprisingly given that words referring to that color are relatively late developers, we don’t have any names involving words meaning ‘orange’. So today we’ll look at a closely related color — brown.

There are two elements with this meaning that primarily contribute to names. The first is Old English dunn ‘brown, dun’, which can be found in the names Dunstan and Dunwine. The Old Irish cognate, donn, with the same meaning, also appears in names, most famously in Duncan.

The other element is of Germanic origin, and the origin of the modern English word ‘brown’: Old English brún, Old Frisian and Old High German brûn, Old Icelandic brún, adopted into medieval Latin as brunus, becoming bruno in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, and brun in French and Provençal. The word meant not only ‘brown’ but also ‘burnished’ and hence ‘shining’ — so it’s not nearly as dull a color as one might think to use in a name! This color term was used as a standalone name, both in masculine Brun and in feminine Bruna, as well as in compounds such as Brunhard.


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Color names: Red

In this, our first post on our monthly topic of color names, we look at names deriving from words for ‘red’.

Old High German rōt, Old Saxon rōd ‘red’ is occurs as a prototheme in a handful of Germanic names, including Rothard and Rothward.

Two Latin words meaning ‘red’ both gave rise to names: Latin rubeus (the same root as the English word ‘ruby’) was used as a masculine given name in Italy, while russa was occasionally used as a feminine name.

One interesting pair of names derive from a word referring to a bright red tincture, while the root of that word is in fact a Latin word meaning ‘little worm’: Vermilia and Vermilius come from Old French vermeillon ‘vermillion, bright red’, because of the bright red dye or paint that could be made from the small insect Kermes vermilio (note that the other word in the Latin name, kermes is cognate to the word ‘crimson’!)


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