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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!