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A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 1

Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black. Other authorities suggest: orange and black. In any case, it has two sides: dark (black) and bright (red or orange). This color name does not seem to occur in the New Testament, and that is why of all the Old Germanic languages only Gothic lacks it (in Gothic a sizable part of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament has been preserved). In the Old Testament, the word appears most rarely. Genesis XXX: 32, 35, and 40 describes the division of Laban’s cattle. According to Verse 35 from the Authorized Version, “…he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.” Those sheep were indeed brown, but the situation is not always so clear. For example, an Old English poet called waves brown, and brown is a common epithet attached to swords in early Germanic poetry. Were waves and swords really brown, like Laban’s sheep?

In Old Germanic languages, brown had the form brun, with a long vowel (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. boo), and we can be fairly certain that the ancient Indo-Europeans had the same hue in mind we do, because at least three unmistakably brown animals were called brown. One of them is the bear, also known as Bruin (the word is pure Dutch). People were afraid of pronouncing the terrible beast’s name and coined a euphemism (“the brown one”). When they said brown, the bear could no longer think that is was summoned and would not come. The other animal with a “brown” name is beaver. If bears and beavers were called “brown” and the biblical Laban had brown sheep, why then brown waves and brown swords? We’ll have to wait rather long for the answer: this blog is a serial.

Let us first look at etymology. Those who have read the relatively recent posts on gray may remember that that Germanic color name made its way into Romance languages. The same holds for brown (vide French brun and Italian brun). Later, as happened more than once, Old French brun returned to Middle English and reinforced the native word; compare also brunet(te), from French, with reference to people with chestnut-colored or black (!) hair. In the posts on gray, I mentioned two current explanations of why gray, brown, and some other color names enjoyed such popularity outside their country of origin. Allegedly, Germanic mercenaries brought them to the Romance-speaking territory with either the words for their horse breeds or for their shields. There must have been something special about both. The root of brown can also be seen in Engl. burnish. The suffix –ish was added to the root of Old French burnir, from brunir. “To make brown” acquired the meaning “polish (metal) by friction.” This returns us to the brown weapons of Old Germanic.

Abkaou, reçoit ses offrandes. 11e dynastie. Louvre Museum. Photo by Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 FR via Wikimedia Commons.
Abkaou, reçoit ses offrandes. 11e dynastie. Louvre Museum. Photo by Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 FR via Wikimedia Commons.

The origin of bear and beaver from brown, though highly probable, is not absolutely assured, but the derivation of the Greek word phryne “toad” (stress on the first syllable) can hardly be put into question. Phryne looks like a perfect cognate of brown. (The famous hetaera Phryne is said to have received this nickname for her sallow skin, but other prostitutes were often called the same, and I have my own explanation of this fact; see below.) Toads, detested by some for all kinds of reasons, have occupied a conspicuous place in the superstitions of the whole world, beginning with at least the ancient Egyptian times. In Egypt, far from being shunned, they stood for fertility, and an amulet in the form of a toad supposedly replicated the uterus. Hequet was a goddess with the head of a frog.

Stories about frogs and toads are countless. One is especially famous. It is about a young man (prince) marrying a frog, which turns into a beautiful maiden. The Grimms knew a short and uninspiring version of this story (it is the opening one in their collection). In it the frog that insists on sleeping in the girl’s bed becomes a handsome prince, which is a variant of “Beauty and the Beast”; as a rule, in such tales the frog or the toad is a female. I would like to suggest, that the nickname Phryne had nothing to do with the hetaera’s skin. All other prostitutes who were called this could not have had the same tint. Since in the popular imagination toads and fertility went together and since Egyptian mythology and beliefs exercised a strong influence on the Greek mind, calling prostitutes toads would have made good sense.

Thus, as we can see, toads (brown creatures) were associated with things bad and good. On the one hand, they were feared for their supposed ugliness and identified with witches. On the other, they were venerated and thought to promote fertility. In that capacity, they frequently received votive offerings. From Egypt we should go to the British Isles, for whose sake I have told my story. As far as I can judge, no accepted etymology of brownie “imp” exists. The books at my disposal only say that brownies, benevolent imps, originated in Scotland and were brown. The earliest citations go back to the early seventeenth century. I have as little trust in brown brownies as in the brown-skinned Phryne among the Greeks. The name must have had magic connotations, but whether positive or negative is open to question. As time goes on, such creatures often change their attitude toward the houses they haunt. They can be friendly if treated well and hostile if offended. By contrast, brownies, chocolate cakes with nuts, are always brown and sweet (chocolate-colored, by definition).

My second example is literary. In Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey’s little daughter Florence is abducted by an ugly old rag and bone vendor. When the girl asks the woman about her name, it is given to her as Mrs. Brown and amended to Good Mrs. Brown. “She was a very ugly old woman, with red rims round her eyes, and a mouth that mumbled and chattered of itself when she was not speaking.” This is how she introduced herself to Florence: “…don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you. I could have killed you at any time—even if you was in your own bed at home.” I am sure somewhere in the immense literature on Dickens the folklore of Mrs. Brown was explained long ago. In any case, Dickens must have had a reason for calling the witch Mrs. Brown and adding ominously the ironic epithet good to the name, to reinforce the impression.

And here is a final flourish for today. I will be grateful for some reliable information on the origin of the last name Brown ~ Braune. Dictionaries say that the name goes back to the color of its bearers. I find this explanation puzzling. It is as though thousands of our neighbors were bears, beavers, and toads.

To be continued.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The other (and to my mind more convincing) explanation of English beaver (Latin fiber, German Biber, Old French bievre < Gaulish, etc.) is that it is < a reduplicated form bʰe-bʰer- of the PIE verb bʰer- ‘bear, carry’, referring to the animal’s behavior of carrying logs, sticks, leaves, etc. By the same token, bear, the animal, may simply be ‘animal’, linked by Seebold’s law (if you accept Seebold’s law) to Greek ther- and Latin ferus ‘wild’, all < PIE *gʷʰer-. If so, then I don’t know of any further cognates of brown outside Germanic, except phrynos, Skt babhrūs ‘mongoose’, and possibly Lithuanian beras and brunas, both ‘brown’, which last may well be borrowings from Germanic for all I know.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with the surname Brown being derived from the color. Do you have alternate etymologies for the common surnames White, Black, Green and the rarer Blue, Red? (On the other hand, *Yellow, *Orange, *Purple/Violet seem to be unknown as English surnames.)

  2. Roland Schuhmann

    ‘but the derivation of the Greek word phryne “toad” (stress on the first syllable) can hardly be put into question’ – oh yes, Beekes can (Etymological Dictionary of Greek, p. 1594: “However, the variation between φρυν- and φρουν- rather points to a Pre-Greek word.”) …

  3. […] spoke Old English and Old Icelandic would not have been aware of the ancient root. As mentioned in Part 1 of this essay, brown horses or possibly shields of Germanic speakers seem to have impressed the Romance world so […]

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