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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








Clark (clerk)

Cook, Cooke

Drover (cattle driver)

Falconer, Faulkner



Fletcher (someone who put feathers on arrows)

Forster, Forester

Franklin (a minor landowner)

Gardner, Gardiner

Knight, Knightley

Mason (stonemason)






Prentice (apprentice)

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


Sailor, Saylor



Smith (blacksmith, tinsmith, silversmith)


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

Tailor, Taylor

Sargent, Sergeant


Wainwright (wagonmaker)





What’s in a name? April 14, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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These days, last names have little meaning. We might note a particularly attractive or ugly name, or, if a name has an exotic sound, might pause for a second to guess its country of origin. (“Angelina Jolie. Hmmm, that sounds French!”) And of course, we tend to perk up if someone shares our own name.

But once upon a time, last names could say a lot about you. That’s because, until comparatively recent times, last names were earned, not inherited. As a result, they could say where you came from (Jack London, G.K. Chesterton). They could tell who your father was (Ashlee Simpson, Jack Nicholson). They could show what you did for a living (James Taylor, Porter Waggoner). (I’m obviously using modern examples here; I’d be surprised to learn that James Taylor spends much time sewing shirts!)

Last names came about because, back in the distant day, people had large families, stayed in one place, and weren’t exactly imaginative in their choice of first names. So if you were talking about someone named Tom, it would avoid a lot of confusion if you referred to Tom the miller as opposed to Tom Donald’s son. And because trades were closely guarded and their skills tended to be passed down in families, if your father was a weaver, there was a good chance that you and your brothers and uncles and grandfathers were all weavers, too: Tom weaver, John weaver, Josh weaver, Jim weaver.

(To this day, a related tradition exists among the Amish, and for the same reason. If you have seven men named Jake Stoltzfus in the same community, they’ll be given nicknames to help identify them in conversation: Ruth’s Jake, Tomato Jake, Piney Road Jake, Big Jake, Horseshoe Jake, and so on.)

Naturally, these added names also helped identify people in church registers and on tax rolls, in wills and on censuses, and in other legal documents. Eventually, this need to keep track of the population brought about the formalization of last names; miller became Miller, John’s son became Johnson, and last names became inherited regardless of one’s profession, birthplace, or parentage.

Our friend Ben is fascinated by names. Even the name of my hero, the great Dr. Franklin, reveals something about his family: At one time, a franklin was an English landowner of non-noble birth, sort of a gentleman farmer.

Trade names especially tell us a lot about the kinds of work people did when their contributions were vital to their communities. They’re a wonderful link to a past that we have lost. Here’s a by-no-means exhaustive look at a few names that originated in professions: Miller, Smith, Weaver, Shoemaker, Hunter, Gardener, Sawyer, Fisher, Shepherd, Tanner, Falconer, Roper, Butler, Reeve, Porter, Cook, Tailor, Fletcher, Carter, Waggoner, Sumner, Tyler, Brewer, Cooper, Mason, Joyner, Carpenter, Farmer. Of course, because spelling was as flexible as naming, there are plenty of variations, too: Smythe, Cooke, Taylor, Shewmaker, Sheppard, Gardner, Faulkner, and so on.  

As you can see, one clue that a name originated as a trade name is if it ends in “-er” or “-or.” If your name ends in either, even if the profession it refers to isn’t obvious, you might want to look it up and see what you find. (For example, Chandler: a chandler was a candle-maker.) You could learn something fascinating about your family!