This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 1st June 1998, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called BROWN?

The word "brown" is much the same in most European languages and all are variations on the Middle Age Latin "brunus". It was so much the colour of the bear that "Bruin" became its familiar name - along, for example, with "Neddy" (donkey) and "Polly" (parrot). A Medieval animal saga regularly featured "Bruin" as a sort of half- witted bear and older readers of the "Peak Advertiser" will remember "Mrs Bruin" and her school attended by "Tiger Tim".

The ultimate source of "brown" lies in a language spoken in Northern India several thousand years ago, which has been reconstructed in the form "babrhu". As well as "brown" it not only generated "beaver" on account of that creature's characteristic colour but also the term "burnish". The links in that case are really too involved to explain within the limits of this little feature, but its older meaning, "to shine" survives in the surname "Brownsword" - i.e. "he who wields a shining blade" and of which some examples occur in the local directories.

As applied in terms of the spectrum, "brown" can range from the palest shades of weak tea to the density of strong coffee! But in Early English it was confined to conveying a notion of darkness rather than a positive colour. In 1400 a man referred to a lady's eyes as being "more browne than ye violettes," meaning that they were even darker than the flower. By, extension "brown" was used to describe a moody person and this still survives in the expression "a brown study". Hence a book on games and recreations written in 1532 states that "Lacke of companie will soon lead a man into a browne studie."

It has become a surname on account of having been so extensively adopted as a nick-name. In the frequency charts listing all forms of nick-names, "Brown" stands first. Simply to say, however, that "Brown" is derived from a term referring to a person's colour is not enough. We must ask the question: "Colour of what?" Since it has already been shown that "brown" could describe a man's disposition, then this rather facile explanation falls short! So in some cases families called "Brown" family could owe their name to an ancestor who bore a melancholy character - perhaps something akin to "Misery-Guts" in modern parlance!

Otherwise "brown" could have been applicable either to hair or to complexion, and, possibly a choice of colour for a garment. Sadly it is very unlikely that more than a few members of any "Brown" family could say for certain which of these items afore-mentioned could have led to their ancestor being so-called.

The problem is not made any the more simple for them in that our Mediaeval ancestors lived more open-air lives and closer to nature than we do today. So a tanned, weather-beaten complexion would not have been so very unusual. Hence it must follow that for a man to have been nick-named "Brown" he must have been exceptionally swarthy.

In referring to the colour of hair it would seem to imply that perhaps in comparatively close communities where there was a general genetic trend to fair hair - no doubt because of Anglo-Saxon settlement - dark hair was decidedly unusual and a member with deep brown hair would have been very distinctive. Furthermore, just as today people with red hair are supposed to be quick-tempered and exceptionally blonde girls are deemed to be curiously empty-headed, so also in the Middle Ages men with dark hair enjoyed a reputation for craftiness.

This might have been one reason why a member of a community could, have been termed "Brown" by his neighbours who attributed to him a devious and deceitful character. It seems, also, that there was a tradition that Judas Iscariot had dark hair - see Shakespeare's "As You Like It" Act III Scene 4, for an interesting application of this notion.

Finally it might have been conferred upon a member of a community who went around in distinctive brown garments - very likely a woman. Note how in France servant-girls, who invariably wore characteristic gowns of coarse grey cloth were designated "la grisette" and also how our Junior Girl Guides are called "the Brownies."

A remarkable feature of the word "brown" is that on the continent it developed into a first name ("Bruno") whereas in these islands it was rarely adopted. However the name "Brun" was known and had some popularity both before and after the Conquest (1066) but seems to have fallen out of use by 1300. Its popularity among the Continentals, especially the Germanic people, is owing to the esteem enjoyed - by Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne (956-65) and St. Bruno (1030-1131) who founded the Carthusian Order. (Commemorated 16th October).

The name "Bruno" appealed to the Normans and they imported it after the Conquest (1066) so that it ran alongside the native "Brun". All forms are to be found in the Domesday survey (1086) but where they have been translated into the Mediaeval Latin "Brunus" it is not easy to determine which was the original name. So it follows that the surname "Brown" could have been derived directly from a nickname or from the personal name, which had itself evolved from the same source.

The earliest records spell the surname "Brun" or "Bron" but in 1296 we find an "Agnes Broun" in Sussex (was she locally known as "ye browne ladye"?) Later in Cambridge there is to be found "John le Browne" (1318).

By far the most common spelling today is "Brown" and in this form it is spread across 10 columns in the local directory. It is, of course, one of the most widely distributed surnames in the English- speaking world.

In the register for London there are over 5000 entries. The alternative "Browne" is less used but the variation is not significant. There are about 20 "Brownes" in the local directories.

There are innumerable permutations on the name, but they are easily recognisable. The forms signifying "son of Brown" include "Browning" and "Bronson". Those which mean "the little one belonging to Brown" include, "Burnett" and "Brunet."

The Standard Biographical Dictionaries make mention of over 80 notabilities called "Brown" and it is really difficult and invidious to make any attempt at selection. Still, we have a local celebrity by way of that loveable school-boy, "William Brown" who was created by a lady who taught at St. Elphin's School at Darley Dale. [The 'Just William' Books, by Richmal Crompton - Ed]

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 1st June 1998.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library