Name That Occupation

Since I did a post about what’s in a name, I decided to do another about names, from a different perspective.  In my preoccupation with word meanings and etymology (history), I once made the unfounded claim that English surnames which ended in “er” were descriptions of what ancestors did for a living.  While mainly true, there are a few which aren’t.

Thayer (or Tayer) means descendant of an Anglo-Saxon lord named Theodoric.  He gave his name to the Thay (Tay) river in the south of Scotland, so a Thayer was anyone who lived within its catchment.  The name Newcomer, mostly shortened to Newcomb, is obvious.

Since few people are as fascinated with the language as I am, I am not surprised that folks often don’t know the history and meanings of words they (mis)use every day.  I am somewhat surprised that so few people know the origins of their family name.  When the census-takers for the Domesday Book came around in the late 11th century, what people did for a living often became their identification.

Language, spelling and technology drift have often concealed to modern folk, how their distant relatives made a buck….or a thruppence.  Baker and Fisher are still obvious.  A Bower bowed to his betters, because he was a general servant.  A Bowyer, on the other hand, was in the lord’s militia.  Bowman is the more modern equivalent, without the “er”.  While we’re playing with bows and arrows, Archer shot them, and (Jessica) Fletcher put the feathers on them.

A Walker walked/trod on soaking newly woven cloth, to felt (thicken) it.  A Turner ran a woodworking lathe.  A Parker maintained the lord’s park, and a Palmer had been a pilgrim to the Holy Land (palm trees).  Coopers originally fabricated small crates like pigeon coops, or chicken coops.  Later they specialized in cylinders with curved sides, and became barrel-makers.

Chandlers started by making/selling candles.  When sea-faring trade grew, ships required many candles, and those who provided them branched out to providing all things needed for ocean voyages, and the name Chandler came to mean “ship provisioner.”

People sometimes ask if a butler, buttles.  The king who ordered the Domesday census was French, and some English names came from French.  Originally, a butler was a “bouteillier”, the wine steward.  As the job expanded, he became a gentleman’s gentleman. Frankly, Rhett wouldn’t have given a damn.  That same linguistic drift has turned the likes of the Anglo-Saxon Farnsworth, into the frog Phaneuf.

At a meeting of the Kitchener council, some years ago, a suggestion was made that a particularly thorny problem be referred to Weaver, Tanner and Miller.  One of the dimmer lights on the council objected to letting “a bunch of tree-hugging artisans” have a look at private city business.  Someone had to explain that they were a well-known and respected consulting firm.  It’s just that their ancestors wove cloth, made leather, and ground grain, respectively.

Tanner’s cousin, Cordwainer, made specialty Cordovan leather, and like the Chandler expansion above, decided to make shoes from it.  A cordovaner became a shoe-maker named Cordwainer.  His partner, Cobbler, has almost as rare a name.

There are many occupation names which don’t end in “er.”  A Wright was someone who fabricated something; therefore the description is playwright, not playwrite.  Wrightson was his kid.  A wagon maker was a Wainwright, and Little Joe Cartwright made little carts.  Carter was the guy who was the medieval FedEx, making quick deliveries in his small, agile vehicle.

Like our neighbors, the Wrights, we Smiths produced things too.  I am happy that, as a minor writer and language-lover, I can describe myself as a wordsmith.  The family names Goldsmith and Silversmith came into being, but are reserved almost exclusively for Jews.  In direct opposition to the Chandlers, our job scale reduced until the only Smiths were the guys pounding on hot iron.

One reason the name Smith is so common is that every city, town and village, no matter how small, had a guy wielding Thor’s hammer.  Another reason is that semi-literate immigration officials, faced with a name with 27 consonants and no vowels, just put down SMITH.  An ethnic-Chinese co-worker, with the Thai name Phoumey Siamanotham, had an Immigrations official tell him, “Your name is long,” so he opened bank accounts and got a job under the name Long.

My name Smith came from the Anglicizing of Schmidt, but, before spelling rules became quite so rigid, Smidt, Smit, and Schmit also existed.  They all came from the Middle-German name Schmeid, which carried the connotation of heavy fabricator, a blacksmith rather than a shoemaker.  Not surprisingly, its partner, the German name Bender, means light fabricator.  The forebears of the actor Michael Fassbender were Master Fabricators.

What about you, my gentle readers?  Do you have, or do you know anyone with, an occupation name?  Have you ever thought about it?


18 thoughts on “Name That Occupation

  1. benzeknees says:

    I have no idea what my married name means. It starts like above from middle German & ends in “chel”. Any ideas?


  2. Archon's Den says:

    I gave you a translation a while ago from, “by outplaying other top keepers.” I don’t know what kind of digital dope their program is smoking. I just checked with Google-Translate, and a much more believable meaning of “uncomplimentary” came back. Perhaps hubby’s forebears spoke their minds about fellow villagers, or maybe just the King’s bureaucrats, who insisted on establishing a surname.


  3. BrainRants says:

    Very interesting. Referring back to my comment prior and your reply, the family name started Scots-Irish and got Germanicized merely by dropping the ‘-y’ at the end. At some point they came to the New World, and the rest is Rantalicious history.

    By the way, what’s the origin of the word, “troll?” He had no idea who he was messing with, did he? He’s tangled with me on occasion, so I feel your pain… and I have your back.


    • Archon's Den says:

      I need to do a study on your name, and not just assume German basis from construction, although it May have gained a -y when the Norse reached the golden isles.
      I’ll look up troll at the same time. I wasn’t aware my little slap-fight was visible to anyone not cruising his site. I made an “ego” comment about him on Savor’s site once, and a week later he modified his “leave a reply” instruction. I was just trying to improve his English usage, but apparently he did see the Savor jab, and has never forgiven me. Amusingly and ironically, this snit just proves the charge. I won’t poke the bear again, lest I need to deal with WordPress management, or Dayton police.


      • BrainRants says:

        Don’t worry about it. I refrain from poking him because hotspur is a little kid who will just keep coming back with “Is not!” no matter what you say. I’d enjoy watching you dismantle him from time to time, though. You might even find the edges of his ego out there somewhere. I’ll say one thing for Savor – when she got stupid on my site, she had the grace to apologize.


  4. Now suddenly I am extremely interested in what my own last name means. I Google’d around for a bit, but will have to keep looking! Thank you for opening my eyes to more words and meanings!


  5. aFrankAngle says:

    Very interesting … of course I recall a college friend majoring in broadcasting with the real name of Holly Wood. Oh well …Just wanted to say hello. I’ve been overwhelmed of late, thus not having a chance to get to other blogs … but I do appreciate your visits. Hopefully, my time will be better in several weeks.


    • Archon's Den says:

      Yeah, it’s hard to be taken seriously as a nuclear physicist, when your parents gave you a stripper name like Candi Kane, or when Mary Christmas is an outspoken atheist. I’m sure there’s another “name” post out there.
      Nice to see you have at least the time to take the occasional stroll through Blogland. When you have a bit of spare time I would like your assistance with translating a couple of Italian words/names that Google and Bing can’t seem to handle.


  6. liorasophie says:

    My algebra teaching assistant: her last name is “Tikochinsky” – one of her ancestors moved and became known as the man from Tikochin.
    In Hebrew a lot of people’s last names are “The son of” and the name of the family patriarch. I imagine this is how most family names worked before the census.


    • Archon's Den says:

      See my threat of another “name” post above. Many cultures/languages have constructions for “son of”, a couple even for “daughter of”. Thanx for the reminder. I’ll work that in. Let’s see, Hebrew – ben….Arabic – ibn.


  7. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Pretty cool post, Archon. You inspired me to do a google search on my maiden name (which was German and ends with ‘er’) so we know my 10 mins of research is accurate! I found out it was a derivative of another name which meant …”means “turn key”, as in jailer or warden.”
    If only I hadn’t turned outlaw, I could have been like Wyatt Earp!


    • Archon's Den says:

      Isn’t it fun to have yet another piece of trivia to dump into a dull conversation? Earp was no angel! he stood on both sides of the line. He just arranged to get paid to get rid of guys he’d have taken out for free.


  8. Jim Wheeler says:

    Turns out there’s a web site called <a href=""The Internet Surname Database that lists research on the matter. From it I got this on my own rather obvious surname, “Wheeler”:

    Recorded in several spellings including Wheeler, the usuall spelling, and Wheeller, Wheler, Whealler, Whealer, Wayler, Whyler, and Whaler, this famous surname is English. It is occupational and in former times described a master wheel-maker or wheelwright. The derivation is from the pre 7th century Olde English word “hweogol” or “hweol”, meaning a wheel. Wheels were used in spinning and other manufacturing processes, as well as for vehicles, so the wheelwright held an important position in medieval England. The surname first appears in records in the mid 13th century (see below) with John le Whelare being recorded in the Subsidy Rolls of Worcestershire in 1275, whilst the Hundred Rolls of Cambridgeshire in 1279 mentions Hugh le Welere.

    I think however it is a bit pretentious for the author(s) to credit the name to “a master wheelmaker . . . ” – methinks they are trying to (eventually) sell me something. Methinks there were lots of little Wheels before there were big ones. But then that’s why I refer to myself as “Still Skeptical”. 🙂

    Excellent post, Archon.


    • Archon's Den says:

      Sorry for not thinking to include you in the “Wainwright, Cartwright” section. Wheelers do make the world go round. The link works in the second iteration. I’ve already used it to do research on BrainRants’ surname. 🙂


  9. I sent away for and received a book about my maiden name when I was in my teens and wanted to begin researching my family tree (on my father’s side. He was an only child and his relatives scant, but recently I was able to find a whole slew of beings that didn’t know I existed…ahh, genealogy is grand.) I think I know what the true meaning of my maiden name is, but can’t remember. Thanks for reminding me to get at it….

    Liked by 1 person

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