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From FHM issue 145

What's in a name? Black

The origins of this surname might seem rather obvious, but in truth they are far from transparent. Colour-names are usually based on personal appearance, and as a rule Black is no exception. The Old English word ‘blaec’ meant black, and many raven-haired or swarthy-complexioned individuals will have taken their name from it. It was also possible, though, for black to mean white. Or, at least, pale and colourless.

            The Old Norse word ‘bleikr’ meant white or wan, and it is from here that we get the word bleach. Some people with very fair hair or pale skin may well have got their surname from this root, the name later evolving into the name Black, despite its contradictory origins.

            In the Black surname family (including Blacke, Blackman and others) is the name Blake, which is particularly associated with this root and is typically regarded as the English version of this largely Scottish surname. Figures for the 17th century show that the name Blake was far more common in England than Black, suggesting that it evolved south of the border, while Black evolved in the north. The maps below highlight the concentration of Blacks in Caledonia – they are barely to be seen in English counties, apart from on the borders.

            In 1881 people with the name could be found particularly in the areas of Fife, Argyll and the counties of the south-west. By 1998 the distribution had not changed dramatically. In the second map there are a handful more English counties that show an increased concentration of Blacks, but they do not approach the levels seen in Scotland, with the same three areas mentioned before still coming out top.

Numerical studies of surname distribution show even more clearly the strength of the name’s ties to Scotland. Surveys undertaken during the 1990s show that Black was at that time the 200th most common surname in Great Britain. When taking England and Wales alone into account it was 310th most common, while in Scotland it was 44th. Statistically, the name’s top area in 1998 was Dumfries, and in 1881 it was Paisley. Black’s Scottish credentials, it seems, are impeccable.

It also does well in the US where it was the 149th most common surname in the 1990s. Immigrants from Scotland will be responsible for many instances of its occurrence across the Atlantic, though people of various descents will also have contributed. Immigrants to the US often anglicised their names upon arrival, and so people originally named Schwarz could have made a literal translation, while Blancs might have made a phonetic translation.

It’s not only Europeans that had to change their name to Black, however. Brits searching for ancestors in Scotland should bear in mind that the moniker was adopted by many members of banned clans in the 17th and 18th centuries after their names were proscribed by the crown, making them outlawed and dangerous to use. When the proscription ended most went back to their original names, but not all. Black is thought of as a sept, or allied name, for several of these proscribed clans – particularly Lamont and MacGregor, who roused the anger of the powerful Campbells and paid the price.

Noteworthy Blacks have been found at all levels of society. Currently on trial for criminal fraud is former newspaper magnate Conrad Black – or, more properly, Baron Black of Crossharbour – one from the upper strata, whose wealth was estimated in 2004 at £175 million. Born in Canada in 1944 to a wealthy brewing family, he became involved in a number of businesses, particularly newspaper publishing, where he is well-known for his connection with the Telegraph group in the UK. In 2001 he gave up his Canadian citizenship in order to accept a peerage.

            From a rather different sector of society, though still at the pinnacle of his profession, was Jack Black, rat-catcher and mole destroyer by appointment to Queen Victoria. In his uniform of corduroy trousers and scarlet velveteen jacket, and with a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats, he is said to have caught rats alive with his bare hands after having blocked all escape routes except one. In one property alone in Camden he is said to have caught 700.

            Other well-known Blacks include James (1800–1872), who made the original Bowie knife for hero of the Alamo Jim Bowie. Such was the quality of his work that many suspected he had rediscovered the secret of making the legendary Damascus steel. British 400m runner Roger Black (born 1966) was one of the world’s finest athletes in the 1980s and 1990s, while Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black (born 1938) famously helped create numerous movie themes, including many for the Bond films.

            TV personality and singer Cilla, however, is not a Black. She was born Priscilla White in 1943, which just goes to show how easily one can become the other. With Blancs becoming Blacks, and Blacks named for their white hair, it’s clear that research into this surname could easily contain grey areas.

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