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People named for jobs. December 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Back in the Middle Ages, people tended to live out their lives where they were born—in their village or city or on the estate of some lord. Professions were passed down from father to son, remaining in the same family generation after generation. And, of course, everybody in the village knew everybody else, and everybody else’s family.

Last names tended to reflect all this, and they were also much more changeable than they are now. You could be named for your birthplace (Burt Lancaster, Jack London), or your father (Johnson, Thompson, Samuelson), or your profession.

It’s these job-based names that fascinate our friend Ben, because they reveal a part of our ancestry, but also because many job-based names have lost their connection to their jobs because the jobs no longer exist. The two most important jobs in any village were the blacksmith, who kept everything repaired and running, and the miller, who ground people’s grains into flour for the staple food of that day, bread. As a result, Miller and Smith are probably the most common job-based names.

Eventually, of course, populations grew and people became more mobile, and in time last names became fixed and disconnected from their origins. Your last name remained Johnson even though your father’s name was George. You moved to Toronto but your name remained London. You’re an accountant, but your surname is Tailor. Something lost, something gained.

Today, let’s take a look at some of those job-based names and see if any of them surprise you. Our friend Ben is sure I’m forgetting a bunch of them, and am unaware of others, so please help me fill in the blanks! Here we go:

Abbot, Abbott

Archer

Baker

Bishop

Butler

Carpenter

Carter

Cartwright

Clark (clerk)

Cook, Cooke

Drover (cattle driver)

Falconer, Faulkner

Farmer

Fisher

Fletcher (someone who put feathers on arrows)

Forster, Forester

Franklin (a minor landowner)

Gardner, Gardiner

Knight, Knightley

Mason (stonemason)

Merchant

Miller

Page

Parson

Potter

Prentice (apprentice)

Reeve (“an official elected annually by the serfs to supervise lands for a lord,” according to Wikipedia)

Roper

Sailor, Saylor

Sawyer

Shoemaker

Smith (blacksmith, tinsmith, silversmith)

Squire

Sumner (summoner, someone who hauled people before an ecclesiastical court)

Tailor, Taylor

Sargent, Sergeant

Tanner

Wainwright (wagonmaker)

Weaver  

Wheeler

Wheelwright

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