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What's in a name? wrote Shakespeare. Well, if the Bard were still around, Collected Wisdom could tell him that there can be quite a lot of pigmentation.

THE QUESTION: George Parker of Cobourg, Ont., asks why people have surnames corresponding to colours such as Black, White, Grey, Brown and Green, but not surnames for colours such as Purple, Blue, Red, Orange or Yellow.

THE ANSWER: "The particular colours that feature in family names mostly refer to hair or complexion," writes Tim Nau, former associate editor of Onomastica Canadiana, the journal of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names. "That's why we seldom encounter a last name such as Blue, Purple or Orange, but often come across Blacks, Browns, Greys, and Whites."

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In addition, he says, there are many "hidden" colour names, such as Russell (red-headed or red-faced), Blundell (from the Old French " blund" or "blond"), and Moore (dark-skinned like a Moor).

Green, however, has a different explanation. "It usually referred to someone who lived on the village green." He says all these names started out as nicknames and later became family names.

Charlene Vickers of Winnipeg adds that Reid was a northern English word for "red" that became a common surname. And Keith Stait-Gardner of Port Perry, Ont., tells us that Fairfax means "fair-haired," from the Old English faex for hair.

Meanwhile, Douglas McKercher of Ottawa writes: "My brother used to be pals with a Maxine Blue [and]my father had a (presumably Protestant) real estate agent named William Orange (whom, as a bumptious teenager in the 1960s, I couldn't resist calling Agent Orange)." He also points out that Gold is a variant of yellow.

FURTHER NOTICE

Last week, we said that Daniel Fahrenheit took the freezing point of seawater to establish zero degrees when devising his temperature scale. Oops! As more than one CW reader pointed out, seawater freezes at about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on salinity, not at zero degrees.

So, CW looked into this and consulted Fahrenheit's original paper on the subject published in Latin in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1724-5). According to a translation on the website Sizes.com, he wrote that zero degrees could be determined by using a brine that was "a mixture of ice, water and ammonium chloride, or even sea salt. If the thermometer is placed in this mixture, its liquid descends as far as the degree that is marked with a zero." He then added: "This experiment succeeds better in winter than in summer."

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HELP WANTED

Why do bread crumbs last so long without going mouldy? Megan Walden of Port Credit, Ont., wants to know.

Daniel F. Phelan of Kingston writes: "We often see mixed colours on cats but only in certain ways. Why are there no tabbies with yellow paws or black paws and faces? Why are there no ginger cats with black paws? White always seems to go to paws, faces and bellies. How does colouring on cats work?"

Send answers and questions to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Please include your name, location and a daytime phone number.

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