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England Surnames Derived from Occupations, Ranks (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Occupational Names[edit | edit source]

These describe the rank or trade of the original surname recipient and are the second most common group.

Trade Surnames[edit | edit source]

Most of them originated in mediaeval towns and villages, and as each one had its Carter, Hayward, Thatcher, Smith, and Tailor there were a multitude of original bearers of the name. The reason for their being so many Smith’s today is that there were so many kinds of craftsmen important to the village or town—a smith makes something (compare with a monger who sells something). There were blacksmiths, shoesmiths (horseshoes), arrowsmiths, swordsmiths, goldsmiths, greensmiths (copper), whitesmiths (tin), sicksmith/sexsmith (sickles) and many more. Other countries had them too, thus we see others ‘in disguise’ in the English speaking world as Faber (Latin), Schmidt (German), Lefe(b)vre (French), Govan, Gowan, and Gow (Celtic), Herrero (Spanish) and the East European Kovacs or Kowalski.

Occupation Surnames[edit | edit source]

Occupational surnames cover all the common occupations of Mediaeval Europe: agricultural, manufacturing and retail with surnames like Bacon (pork butcher), Baker, Brewer, Cheesman, Cooper, Fisher, Fletcher (arrowmaker), Gardiner, Glover, Ironmonger, Kellogg (‘kill hog’ a pork butcher), Mason, Miller, Slater, Spicer, Spurrier (spur maker), Tapper (wine merchant, also weaver of carpets), Turner, Woodward (in charge of forests). Those who made things include a long list with the suffixes -maker like Bowmaker, Shoemaker, and Slaymaker (shuttles for weavers), and -wright, mainly workers in wood, such as Arkwright (chests), Boatwright, Cartwright, Shipwright and Wainwright (wagons) who featured prominently in the local scene. A herd looked after animals as in Calvert (calves), Cowherd or Coward (cows), Goddard (goats), Neatherd (oxen), Shepherd (sheep), Stoddard (stud of horses), and Swinnart (swine) and the generic Heard, Herd, and Hird. The importance of the English wool trade is indicated by the number of surnames coming from it. Weaver, Webb, Webber and Webster were involved in weaving. Those who treated woollen cloth have given us three surnames, Fuller, Tucker, and Walker, as these were the dialect terms in the south and east, the southwest, and the west and north respectively. Dying cloth is represented by Dexter, Dyer and Lister, also from different dialects. Card, Kempster, and Tozer were part of the carding process, and Sherman would have sheared either the sheep or the finished cloth. Most of them were used as surnames but many have died out. Another book that usefully classifies and lists a huge number of surnames from occupations is Dolan, however his historical and genealogical information has many inaccuracies, and the presentation is glib.

Rank or Status Surnames[edit | edit source]

These may come from:

  • ŸOffices in mediaeval society such as Bachelor (young knight), Butler, Chamberlaine/Chambers/Chalmers, Clerk/Clark, Dempster (judge), Franklin (gentleman below a knight), Knight, Laird, Marshall, Page, Squire and Sumner (from summoner, the man who ensured the appearance of witnesses at court).
  • ŸNoblemen and church officials gave rise to several names, but most are probably from nicknames (someone who acted the part in a play, or whose behaviour resembled one) or from servants of these men. Examples include Abbott, Bishop, Dean, Duke, Earl, Friar, King, Lord, Monk, Nunn, Pope, Priest, Prince and Prior.
  • ŸServants of great people also formed surnames with suffixes such as the possessive -s, as in Parsons, Squires, and Vickers, or with -man as in Bateman (Bartholomew’s man), Maidman (servant to a lady or convent), and Matthewman.

Additional Information[edit | edit source]

See England Names, Personal for more information.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.