Tag Archives: Old Irish

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’.

Black
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]’.

Dark
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.


References

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

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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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