30 Family Secrets Hiding in English Surnames

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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

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August 28, 2014 - 11:00am
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