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WHAT'S IN A SURNAME?

We all recognize surnames like Baker and Miller as names taken from the occupation of some remote ancestor. But many other family names are also derived from occupations. The ubiquitous Smiths are descended from metal-workers, of course, and the Wrights were those who knew how to shape and fashion wood:  wheelwrights, cartwrights, wainwrights.  ("Wain" is an old word for "cart.")  Dramatists, by the way, are not "playwrites," despite the common misspelling;  rather they are playwrights, wordsmiths who shape and fashion plays.  (The adjective wrought, as in "wrought iron" means "skillfully twisted or shaped."  An "overwrought" person is someone who's twisted out of shape.)

Many other common surnames are derived from occupations.  A Cooper made barrels, a Chandler made candles, and a Thatcher made thatched roofs.  A Fuller bleached cloth, a Sawyer cut logs, and a Spenser, short for dispenser, was a butler.  A Turner was one who turned a lathe for a living, and a Walker was probably someone employed as a courier.  A Chapman was a seller;  our word "cheap" comes from the same word root.

A Baxter was actually a "bakester," or baker, and a Webster was a weaver.  (A web was originally anything woven;  now, it seems, only spiders are given credit for this handicraft.)  Another lost art is that of the Fletcher, or arrow-maker.  The name actually derives from the French word for "feather," used in making the arrow's flights, or stabilizing fins.  Related words are fledging, a young bird with downy feathers, and full-fledged, which literally means "fully-feathered," hence full-grown. 

The word surname  means "added-on name," from the same French prefix that gives us surcharge and surplus.  As populations became larger and more mobile in the Middle Ages, it became increasingly impractical to distinguish individuals be first names only. So people began taking fixed surnames, if not based on occupation, then often on their father's name.

Surnames from father's given names are especially obvious in English and Swedish.  Johnson, is of course, "son of John" and Nelson is "son of Nels."  John and Nels had daughters too, I'm sure, but more gender-sensitive names like "Johnchild" and "Nelsoffspring" just didn't seem to catch on back then.  In Norwegian the same suffix is "sen," (Johannsen, "son of Johann") and German "sohn" (Mendelsohn, "son of Mendel.") The Gaelic "Mac," Armenian "ian," Spanish "-ez," Rumanian "-escu," and Slavic "-vitz" all identify a person as the offspring of someone whose first name has been passed on.

 When Juliet asked about Romeo "What's in a name?" she could have answered the question if she had quit brooding out there on the balcony and gone in to consult The Dictionary of Italian Surnames.  Readers who consult a similar resource about their own surnames may find an intriguing glimpse of their distant ancestors.
 

Recent Publications

The Way We Word 

WHAT'S IN A SURNAME? 

ITS A DOG'S WORD

NEW WORDS FOR A NEW CENTURY

WORDS FOR THE BIRDS

KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names

NEARBY PLACES WITH STRANGE-SOUNDING NAMES

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks

WORDS OF CON-GRADUATION

 


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