istock
istock

30 Family Secrets Hiding in English Surnames

istock
istock

Long before Lorde, Adele, or even Cher, one name was all a person needed. In Britain before the Norman Conquest of 1066, people went by single names. If a village had an overabundance of Toms, one might be called Tom, John’s son, and another Tom the baker. But last names weren't inherited until Norman nobility introduced the practice, creating Tom Johnson and Tom Baker. It’s easy to guess what an ancestor of someone named Cook, Carpenter, or Smith did for a living. With other occupational surnames, though, either the word or the trade has become obsolete, so the meaning is hidden.

1. BARKER

The name Barker doesn’t come from carnival barkers who yell, “Step right up!” or another Barker who shouted, “Come on down!” but from barkers, also called tanners, who converted hides into leather by steeping them in an infusion of astringent bark.

2. BAXTER

It may surprise some hipsters to learn that in Old English the “-ster” suffix was used to form feminine agent nouns. A man who baked was a baker; a woman who baked was a baxter. Later, baxter was used for either sex.

3. BREWSTER

A woman brewer was a brewster.

4. CHALLENDER

A challender was a maker or seller of blankets, from Middle English chaloun, meaning blanket or coverlet.

5. CHANDLER

A chandler was originally a maker or seller of candles. The term broadened to mean someone in charge of stocking candles for a large household, a dealer in household items, and, later, a dealer in supplies for a ship.

6. CHAPMAN

Chapman is an Old English word for merchant. The root “chap-“ is related to “cheap,” an obsolete verb meaning to barter, buy, and sell; to trade, deal, bargain.

7. CRAPPER

Although the purported biography Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper is a satire and Crapper did not invent the flush toilet, he did run a plumbing company. His name is not the origin of the word “crap,” however. The name Crapper is a variant of Cropper, one who harvests crops.

8. DAUBER

A dauber was a plasterer or someone who applied “daub”—clay or mud mixed with stubble or chaff—to make a “wattle and daub” cottage.

9. FLETCHER

Fletcher comes from Old French flecher or flechier and means an arrow maker.

10. FROBISHER, FURBER

These two names come from Old French forbisseor, furbisher or polisher of armor. These days, we refurbish things without worrying about whether they were furbished in the first place.

11. FULLER, WALKER, TUCKER

A fuller, known in some regions as a walker or tucker, trampled on cloth in water to clean and thicken it.

12. HUSSEY

Hussey was a shortening of “housewife” and did not have the negative denotation “hussy” does today.

13. JENNER

Jenner comes from Old French engigneor, meaning engineer or maker of military machines.

14. KELLOGG

W. K. Kellogg, a vegetarian who developed corn flakes as a healthful alternative to the traditional ham-and-egg breakfast, might be surprised to learn that his surname derived from “kill hog” and referred to a butcher.

15. KISSER

A kisser didn’t osculate for a dollar at a carnival booth. He made leather armor for the thighs, called a cuisse, from Old French cuisse, “thigh.” Don Quixote’s name is also derived from the same piece of armor.

16. LATIMER

Perhaps from a misreading of the word “Latiner,” an interpreter was called a “latimer” in the 13th through 15th centuries.

17. LEECH

Based on the state-of-the-art medical treatment of the day, in the Middle Ages, physicians were known as leeches.

18. LORIMER

A lorimer made bits, spurs, and metal mountings for horses’ bridles.

19. PALMER

Those who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land wore a token representing a palm branch and were known as palmers.

20. PARKER

In the Middle Ages, a parker was a gamekeeper in a game park.

21. PULLEN

From the Old French word poulain, colt, the name was given to those who were frisky or those who raised horses.

22. READER

Most medieval readers were illiterate, but they knew how to use reeds to thatch roofs.

23. SPENCER

A spencer dispensed a lord’s provisions.

24. SPITTLE, SPITTAL

This name has nothing to do with saliva, but refers to someone who worked in a “spittle” (from Old French hospital), a charitable house for the indigent or diseased.

25. SPOONER

From the Middle English spoon, meaning splinter, this name was given to roofers.

26. TRAVERS

From Old French travers, meaning the act of passing through a gate, crossing a river, bridge, etc.; travers meant a toll collector.

27. WAYNE, WAINWRIGHT, WRIGHT

A wright was a builder or craftsman. There were once millwrights, tile-wrights and wheelwrights. Now the suffix survives only in playwright and the old-fashioned term shipwright. A wain or wayne was a cart or wagon. The names Wayne and Wainwright both refer to wagon builders.

28. WEBB, WEBBER, WEBSTER

These three names (Webster being the feminine form) all derive from Old English webba, weaver.

29. WHITER, BLACKER

Strange as it may seem, both of these names refer to linen bleachers. Blacker comes from bleckester, meaning bleacher.

30. WOODWARD

From the Old English words wudu, wood, and weard, guardian, a woodward was a forester.

Just think: if we took our surnames from present-day occupations, you might run across people like Max Coder, Tina Telemarketer, and Heather Houseflipper.

Sources: Dictionary of American Family Names*; Oxford English Dictionary Online*; The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History (2 ed.)*; A Dictionary of First Names (2 ed.)*; Encyclopedia of American Family Names; Dictionary of British Surnames; English Surnames.

*Accessed via the Los Angeles Public Library website

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NASA, Getty Images
Watch Apollo 11 Launch
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson view the liftoff of Apollo 11
NASA, Getty Images

Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, on its way to the moon. In the video below, Mark Gray shows slow-motion footage of the launch (a Saturn V rocket) and explains in glorious detail what's going on from a technical perspective—the launch is very complex, and lots of stuff has to happen just right in order to get a safe launch. The video is mesmerizing, the narration is informative. Prepare to geek out about rockets! (Did you know the hold-down arms actually catch on fire after the rocket lifts off?)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Spacecraft Films on Vimeo.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios