The Surname Brown: Its Meaning and Origin

This Descriptive Surname Has a Colorful Source

John Brown (1800 - 1859) the American abolitionist. The song in memory of his exploits during the Harpers Ferry Raid 'John Brown's Body' was a popular marching song with Union soldiers.
John Brown (1800–1859) was a famous North American 19th-century Black activist. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

From the Middle English br(o)un, deriving from Old English or Old French brun, and literally meaning "brown," as in the color, this descriptive surname (or nickname) refers to the color of an individual's complexion, the color of their hair, or even the color of the garments they wore most often. As a Scottish or Irish name, Brown may also be a translation of the Gaelic donn, which also means "brown."

Fast Facts for the Surname Brown

  • Brown is the 4th most popular surname in the United States, the 5th most common in England, and the 4th most common last name in Australia. The variant surname, Browne, is also common in England and Ireland.
  • Surname Origin: English, Scottish, Irish
  • Alternate Surname Spellings: Browne, Braun, Broun, Breun, Bruun, Bruan, Brun, Bruene, Brohn
  • Brown is the second most common surname among African Americans in the United States. Some formerly enslaved people adopted the name Brown following the Civil War for the obvious reason that it described their appearance, however, there were also many who adopted the surname in honor of the North American 19th-century Black activist John Brown.

Where in the World is Brown Surname Common?

According to surname distribution data from Forebears, the Brown surname is most prevalent in the United States, although the name is also borne by the highest percentage of the population in the Pitcairn Islands. The Brown surname ranks as the second most common surname in the country in Canada and Scotland, followed by third in Australia, and fourth in the United States and England.

During the period of time from 1881 to 1901, Brown was the most common surname in the Scottish counties of Lanarkshire, Midlothian, Stirlingshire, and West Lothian, and the second most common surname in the English counties of Middlesex, Durham, Surrey, Kent, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Suffolk, Northamptonshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire, as well as in the Scottish counties of Ayrshire, Selkirkshire, and Peebleshire.

John Brown, born circa 1312, in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England; John Brown, born circa 1380, in Stanford Draper, Rutlandshire, England are two early Englishman with the recorded surname of Brown.

Famous People with the Surname Brown:

  • John Brown—North American 19th-century Black activist (1800–1859)
  • Charlie Brown—the fictional central character of the popular Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schultz
  • Dan Brown—bestselling author, best known for The DaVinci Code
  • James Brown—The "Godfather of Soul"
  • Veronica Campbell-Brown—Jamaican Gold medal Olympic sprinter
  • Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown—Texas blues legend
  • Molly Brown—Titanic survivor Margaret Tobin Brown, made famous by the 1960s musical, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

Genealogy Resources for the Surname Brown:

Contrary to what you may have heard, there's no such thing as a Brown family crest or coat of arms. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families, and may rightfully be used only by the uninterrupted male-line descendants of the person to whom the coat of arms was originally granted. You won't be able to look up a Brown family crest but there are plenty of resources available to learn more about the family tree. Here are just a few:

100 Most Common U.S. Surnames & Their MeaningsSmith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown. If you're one of the millions of Americans sporting one of these top 100 common last names from the 2000 census, this resource can help you delve deeper into your family history.

Brown Genealogy SocietyA great collection of information on genealogies and histories related to the Brown surname.

Brown DNA StudyThis huge DNA surname study includes over 463 tested members to date who belong to some 242 unrelated, biologically separate Brown, Browne, and Braun family lines.

Brown Family Genealogy ForumSearch this popular genealogy forum for the Brown surname to find others who might be researching your ancestors, or post your own Brown query. There are also separate forums for the BROWNE and BRAUN variations of the Brown surname.

FamilySearch - BROWN GenealogyExplore over 26 million historical records and lineage-linked family trees posted for the Brown surname and its variations on the free FamilySearch website hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

BROWN Surname & Family Mailing ListsRootsWeb hosts several free mailing lists for researchers of the Brown surname. - BROWN Genealogy & Family HistoryFree databases and genealogy links for the last name Brown.


Cottle, Basil. Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967.

Menk, Lars. A Dictionary of German Jewish Surnames. Avotaynu, 2005.

Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia. Avotaynu, 2004.

Hanks, Patrick and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hanks, Patrick. Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Smith, Elsdon C. American Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "The Surname Brown: Its Meaning and Origin." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 26). The Surname Brown: Its Meaning and Origin. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "The Surname Brown: Its Meaning and Origin." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).