A discussion I had with some friends recently about names made me think of…well…names. But specifically, the origins and meanings of what are called ‘occupational surnames’. That is, the surnames that are derived from various historical occupations. The following posting is a list of some of the more common occupational surnames that have sprouted up over the centuries, and the origins of the names and the professions which they spring from. Maybe your surname’s in here somewhere?


As in: Thomas Bowyer (witness in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888).

You are watching: Were all occupational names given literally the occupation of the person given the name?

If your surname is Bowyer, chances are that centuries ago, one of your ancestors was active in the manufacture of the high-powered weapon of the Middle Ages. The longbow. When the longbow was in its prime, it was most often made of the wood of the Yew tree. Bowstrings would’ve been made from linen or in even older times, animal sinew. Not for nothing was it called the longbow, however. For maximum range, speed and penetrating force, longbows were made as big as possible, often being the same size as the person who shot it. So a bow could be anywhere from five to six feet in height.


As in: Rhett Butler (Character in ‘Gone with the Wind‘; of ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!’ fame).

The surname ‘Butler’ comes from the French word ‘Butuiller’, or ‘bottler’. The ‘Butler’ was therefore the guy who looked after bottles…of wine! It’s from the same root and the same word that we get the occupation of ‘Butler’ as a domestic servant. Although in popular culture, the Butler is the all-seeing, all-knowing, discreet and conniving head of the household servantry, the post actually started out as being the official custodian of the home’s wine-cellar where the bottles that gave him his title were stored.


As in: Raymond Chandler (Famous American crime-fiction writer).

If your name’s Chandler or if your last name’s chandler, then once upon a time, quite possibly, a long time ago, your ancestors worked in the lighting industry. A ‘chandler’ was the name given to a maker of candles. From which we also get the word ‘Chandelier’. The chandler’s job was to manufacture candles using wicks and wax (either natural beeswax or cheaper tallow, a sort of waxy substance derived from…animal fat!). Candles were made in a variety of ways. Longer stick-candles were usually made by tying the wicks to wooden frames and suspending the frames over vats of molten wax. Dipping the candle-wicks into the hot wax over and over and raising them out after each dipping caused the wicks to be coated in wax. The wax then dried and the candles were dipped again…and again…and again.

This was a long, slow process but it produced nice, slender candles. The other method for candlemaking was to lower the wicks into the middle of a mold and to just pour the candle-wax into the mold around the wick. This was used to make larger candles, but pouring boiling hot liquid wax could be extremely dangerous. Anyone who’s ever had wax get onto their hands while trying to blow out those big fat ornamental pillar-candles will know how painful a wax-burn can be!


As in: Peter F. Collier (of ‘Collier’s Weekly‘ fame)

The title ‘Collier’ was given to any person who had anything to do with coal. Whether he mined it, sold it, dug it out of the ground or even made charcoal (by burning wood). The collier had an important job. Coal, in its various forms and varities, was needed for a lot of things. Blacksmiths required coal to fire their forges, manufacturers of gunpowder required specially-made ‘charcoal’ (crushed to a powder) to mix with potassium nitrate and sulphur to create old-fashioned gunpowder, and ordinary homes required tons of coal to fire stoves and fireplaces.


As in: Merian Caldwell Cooper (American filmmaker who created the 1933 classic ‘King Kong’).

‘Cooper’ is another occupational name. In older times, the ‘cooper’ was the man who made barrels…you know, the stuff that wine’s stored in? The place he worked in was called the cooperage. The word ‘Cooper’ comes from the Dutch word ‘Kup‘, meaning ‘tub’.

Any settlement, village, city or town of significant size was likely to have at least one cooperage and at least one cooper. Barrels were required for a lot of things, and not just wine. In 1605, the Gunpowder Plotters stored eighteen hundredweight (nearly a ton!) of black gunpowder in barrels in the undercroft of the House of Lords in London, in their epic (but failed) assassination-attempt of James I of England. Two hundred years later in 1805, the cooper’s craft was used to store something else. When Lord Horatio Nelson was killed by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of Trafalgar, his corpse was stuffed into a barrel and was preserved during the voyage home to England for his funeral, by being submerged in brandy!


As in: William Faulkner (American writer).

If your surname is ‘Falconer’ or it’s variation, ‘Faulkner’, then it might be possible, once upon a time, a long time ago, that one of your ancestors might, just might, have had a very special job. Not a very comfortable job. But certainly one that was very special.

A falconer is a man who trains, looks after and handles a falcon. One of these things:


Isn’t he just the most adorable, cuddly, snuggly little birdie?

This is a falcon. The falcon is a bird of prey that attacks small game. Because of their speed (grown Falcons can dive at a speed of up to two hundred miles an hour!), strength and predatory nature, they were prized as hunting-birds by medieval royalty. Falcons were caught, tamed and then trained to hunt small game such as smaller birds and rabbits for their masters. The person who looked after the falcons was called the falconer. His job involved a large number of duties all related to this very prized bird. Duties which included housing the birds, feeding them, exercising them, carrying them around (such prized birds would never dare sully their royal wings by flapping through common air!) and of course, recovering any prey or quarry that the falcon had managed to capture. Given that only kings and queens were allowed to hunt with falcons, being a falconer meant that you were a servant of someone rich and powerful. Of course, failing to look after your master’s falcons could result in some nasty punishments. If the falcon went missing, you, as the falconer, had to go after it. And even if you found it, the falcon was then allowed to remove 6oz. (about a third of a pound) of flesh from your body as punishment! Ouch!


As in: Dustin Fletcher (Australian football player).

A fletcher is an arrowmaker. The name comes from the ‘fletching’ that the arrowmaker attaches to the ends of the arrow-shafts. Fletching being the nice, colourful bits of bird-feather which he sticks on the ends, to give the arrows the required aerodynamic properties to spin in the air and be as accurate as possible. Before the rise of firearms in the Early Modern period, the fletcher had the important job of creating the most advanced and lethal form of ammunition then in existence. Bowmen had to train every single weekend for hours at a time to ready themselves for battle. An arrow tipped with a steel point could be fired with enough force to pierce plate-armour, chainmail and penetrate flesh. In the Battle of Hastings, King Harold of the Anglo-Saxons was killed by an arrow to the eye. That is the fletcher’s craft at work.


As in: Kurt Fuller (American actor).

‘Fuller’ is one of the less obvious occupational names that has survived through the centuries. A fuller was a cloth-worker. A worker who was occupied in the task of ‘fulling’. Fulling is the act of cleansing freshly-woven (but dirty) cloth, of impurities such as aminal-oils, dirt, grit or other gunk, and binding the fibres of the cloth together to make it thicker and stronger. Traditionally, the cloth was woven wool. And traditionally, people employed as fullers were given the privilege (probably) of being allowed as many urinary bathroom breaks as ever they could wish!


Because fulling used to be done by dumping the cloth into an open tub and then drenching it in gallons of stale piss! The chemicals in human urine (specifically, the ammonia, which gives it that delightful scent) help flush out the impurities in the fabric and binds the fibres of the cloth together to make it stronger. Fortunately, a cleaner method of fulling involving a type of earth (called ‘Fuller’s Clay’), replaced urinal fulling, which in turn, was replaced by a much, much cleaner fulling medium – soap!


As in: Anita Page (American actress).

A ‘page’ is a knight in training. In medieval times, armies had footsoldiers, cavalry, archers and knights. Knights were the elite, specially-trained soldiers who fought on horseback. The training was gruelling to say the least. To become a knight, you went through three stages of training. Starting at age 7, you became a page, apprenticed to a full knight. You would be sent to live with the knight and with the local noble family. Obviously, to do this, your family had to be pretty rich, too.

Because you (or your family) paid for everything. That ‘everything’ included the chainmail, the sword, the shield, the horse and of course, the shining armour. For seven years, a page learnt reading, writing, music, languages, how to behave in a royal or noble court, and then he entered his formal training at the age of 14. From 14 to 21, he was a squire. As a squire, he learnt how to clean, repair, take off, put on, wear and move around in armour. He learnt how to fight on horseback and on foot. He would wear his armour as often as possible to get used to the weight. A suit of armour could weigh upwards of 100 pounds…not including the sword…scabbard…woolen undershirt…chainmail…and shield. If you had proven that you were brave, strong and intelligent enough, or had rendered a suitably courageous service, you would be knighted sometime after your 21st birthday.


As in: Adam Sandler (American actor).

Derived from the Hebrew word “Sandlar” – “Sandal-maker” or “Shoemaker”. In times past, a shoemaker was a skilled and valued person. The manufacture of quality footwear was important in times when roads were little more than dirt tracks and most streets were rivers of filth and muck. Then, as now, most shoes were made of leather.


As in: Tom Sawyer (Fictional character created by Mark Twain).

In older times, a ‘sawyer’ was a woodworker. More precisely, he was a…sawyer. A man who worked with a wood-saw to cut long slats of wood (planks!) for people to use in building and the manufacture of furniture and other essential items made of wood (such as carts, gates, fences and so-on). The sawyer profession still exists today, but with the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of steam and water-powered sawmills with enormous automatic saws, it’s not as common as what it once was. Sawyers often worked in pairs because the logs they cut were so large and the massive saws that they used, so incredibly long and heavy.

To saw a plank, a prepared log was placed over a pit and was held in place by wooden beams called ‘dogs’. It’s from here that we get the expressions “top dog” and “underdog”. The ‘top dog’ was the sawyer who was ‘atop the dogs’ or outside the pit, holding the top end of the saw. The ‘underdog’ was the man down in the pit, holding the bottom half of the saw, quite literally ‘under the dogs’. It was the top dog’s job to guide the sawteeth. It was the underdog’s job to apply pressure on the downwards strokes, and to lift the saw on the upwards strokes. He was the underdog in more ways than one, though. All the sawdust that came from the constant abrasion of the sawteeth would fall into the pit and get all over the underdog. Not a pleasant job.


As in: Christian Slater (American actor).

Related to the thatcher and the tyler (or ’tiler’), the slater was the man who worked specifically with a type of rock…Slate…to tile the rooves of buildings. The characteristics of slate means that it can be split into thin sheets or plates. These plates or ‘shingles’ can then be hammered onto the roof in overlapping layers to create a leakproof roof.


As in: Dame Maggie Smith (British Actress).

Smith is one of the most common surnames in the world. But what is a ‘Smith’?

A smith was a metalworker. There are many kinds of smiths. Blacksmiths (who worked with iron and steel). Brownsmiths (who worked with copper). Tinsmiths. Silversmiths. Goldsmiths. Locksmiths. The list is almost endless. But almost without exception, a smith was a person who worked in some way with metal. The place where a smith worked, officially called a ‘forge’ was often nicknamed just the ‘Smithy’, as in ‘the village smithy’. The blacksmith is often considered the king of the Smiths…as well as the king of all artisans and workers. The blacksmith was the guy who made the stuff that everyone else used to make stuff with! He made the axes, the swords, the saws, hammers, nails, horseshoes, door-knockers, candleholders, knives, shovels…anything made of metal had to go through his hands first before someone else could use it!

A tinsmith (one of the varieties of smiths) was also called a ‘tinker’: Someone who fiddled around with small, metal household objects (such as pots, pans, ladles and other common household utensils).

But how does something like ‘Smith’ have anything to do with metal? The surname ‘Smith’ comes from the Old English word ‘Smite’. As in to ‘Smite them down!’. To ‘Smite’ someone or something literally meant to hit them. Since half a metalworker’s time is spent in beating the red hot metal to the correct shape before it cools (and becomes too hard to work), the word ‘Smite’ was applied to their professions, which eventually evolved to ‘Smith’, which is still used today.

A lot of our expressions today come from the humble village blacksmith. To ‘Strike while the Iron is Hot’. To go at something ‘Hammer and Tongs’.


As in: Lady Diana Spencer (Princess Diana).

The surname ‘Spencer’ is originally of French origin. It comes from the occupation of the ‘Dispencier‘, or the dispenser of provisions. The surname ‘Spencer’ is unique in that it’s probably one of the few surnames that can be traced back to ONE person. That person being Robert d’Abbetot. d’Abbetot followed King William (William the Conquerer) to England during his conquest of the British Isles. His occupation was the royal dispenser (of provisions and materials for William’s armies). As such, his name was listed as “Robert le Dispencier’ (“Robert the Dispenser”). Robert eventually changed his name to that of Robert le Dispensier as opposed to Robert d’Abbetot. Over the following generations, le Dispensier became ‘Dispensier’, then ‘Spensier’ and eventually…’Spencer’.


As in: Bill Tanner (Character in the James Bond universe).

A tanner was a processor of leather, the material produced from animal hides. The place in which he would have worked was the tannery. Being a tanner was a terrible and revolting job. For one, it involved stewing the cow-hides in vats of water and dog-droppings! The full tanning process went like this:

1. Stick cow-hides in vats of water and lime (the stuff you make old-style concrete out of, not the stuff that goes in your drink!) Let it soak. This loosens up all the hair on the hide.

2. Remove the hide after two weeks’ soaking. Place the hide on a sloped board while you shave off all the hair and fur with a massive knife.

3. Flip the hide over. Using another big, scary knife, slice and shave away all the fat on the inner-side of the hide.

4. Dunk the entire hide, free of hair, fur and fat, into a huge bath full of dog-doodies and water. Stew and simmer (literally. There would be a fire under the water-and-dog-poo pit to keep things nice and hot) for a few weeks. Let old Fido’s bowel-movements and the bacteria that they contained, work with the water to remove the lime (from Step 1) from the hide and soften up the skin until it’s nice and floppy. Then, remove the hide, hang it and leave it to dry.

All this made the leather nice and soft and pliable. And when you consider all the things that leather was used for back in the old days, this was a horrible, but very necessary job. You needed leather for…shoes, aprons, belts, book-covers, desktops, razor-strops, gloves, bags, boxes…all manner of things!


As in: John Tyler (10th President of the United States of America).

The surname ‘Tyler’ comes from the occupation ‘tyler’. Or to be more precise…’Tiler’. As in the guy who installs tiles. In older times, the tyler was the man who repaired or installed rooves (roof-tiles) in villages or towns where rooves were more commonly made of slate shingles, clay tiles or wooden slats. In London, rooves used to be all made of dried grass which was stacked and bundled onto the roof creating a thatched roof. In 1666, the Great Fire burned damn near the entire center of town to ashes. When the city was being rebuilt, Charles II decreed that no buildings were to be built of flammable materials, and certainly not with thatched rooves. Tylers around London must’ve made sacks of gold fulfilling all their orders; over 13,000 buildings were burnt to the ground during the four days the fire lasted.


As in: John Webster (17th century English playwright).

A webster, webber or weaver was a person who worked with threads or cloth, weaving the strands and threads together to bond them and make fabric. The strips of cloth or fabric stretched across the frames of couches and chairs (which support the padded seat above) is still called ‘webbing’ today.


As in: Wilbur and Orville Wright (pioneer aviators).

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A ‘wright’ was an Old English word for a woodworker. The word ‘wright’ was therefore applied to occupations that traditionally made things out of wood, such as a ‘shipwright’ or a ‘wheelwright’. A builder of boats and a manufacturer of cart and carriage-wheels.