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From British jobs to American surnames

April 2006

A look back ...

The history of the U.S. is forever tied to the British Isles, and the common surnames of America are peppered with names from the U.K. Three hundred years ago a British family would often be named after the father's occupation or skill, and today these names are everywhere in the United States. It's amazing how many common American names come directly from the work that British dads did centuries ago.

Here's a small sample of the many job descriptions from medieval "commoner" ranks that are today found in every American phone book:

Archer, Armour
Bacon, Baker, Bailey, Barber, Barger, Barker, Bellows, Bender, Boatman, Boatwright,
         Booker, Bookman, Bowman, Bond, Brewer, Butcher, Butler,
Carpenter, Carrier, Carter, Cartwright, Carver, Clark, Cleaver, Commoner, Cook, Courier, Cutter,
Deacon, Dorman, Draper, Draver, Drayer, Drover, Dyer,
Ensign,
Farmer, Farrier, Fisher, Fletcher, Forrester, Fryar, Furrier,
Gardner, Glass, Gold, Goldsmith, Guard,
Hammer, Harper, Hatcher, Hunter,
Lancer, Lawyer, Leatherman, Letterman, Lighter, Luther,
Major, Mariner, Mason, Master, Merchant, Messenger, Miller, Miner, Monk,
Packer, Page, Painter, Parson, Person, Piper, Planter, Player, Ploughman,Potter, Pryor,
Reeve, Roper, Ryder, Ryman,
Sadler, Sawyer, Seaman, Sergeant, Sexton, Shearer, Shears, Shepherd, Shoemaker, Silver,
         Singer, Smith, Spearman, Spurrier, Stabler, Stills, Stoker, Stover, Swain,
Tanner, Taverner, Taylor, Teacher, Teller, Tiller, Tinker, Topper, Tracker, Trapper, Turner,
Wagoner, Wainwright, Ward, Weaver, Wheeler, Woodwright, Wright, and Yeoman.

While these occupational names seem to have pretended to somewhat higher status:

Abbott, Bishop, Cardinal, Councilman, Court, Duke, Earl, Justice, King, Knight, Lord, Noble, Peer, Pope, Priest, Prince, Queen, and Squire.

And let's take along these surnames which also say something about the wearer:

Able, Bagwell, Bandy, Batchelor, Battle, Beard, Best, Colt, Cousin, Coward, Elder, Freeborn, Freeman, Goodman, Goodrich, Hale, Love, Outlaw, Rich, Rover, Ryder, Shakespeare, Small, Speer, and Walker

Or something about their environment:

Alley, Alder, Almond, Apple, Ash, Atwater, Atwood
Banks, Bankside, Barnard, Barnes, Barnside, Barnwell, Bay, Bean, Beaver, Bell
          Berry, Birch, Blackstone, Blackwell, Bloom, Bloomfield, Bowers,
          Bridges, Broad, Broadmoor, Brooks, Brookside, Brown, Burns,
Castle, Church, Churchill, Cliff, Cloverdale, Coverdale, Cross,
Dale, Dove, Downs, Easterling, Eastwood, Eden,
Field, Fields, Fielding, Flood, Flowers, Ford, Forrest
Glen, Greathouse, Green, Grove, Heath, Hightower, Hill
Ivy, Lake, Laurel, Lea
Manor, Maples, Meadows, Mills, Minster, Moore, Moorhead, North, Oaks,
Parks, Partridge, Ponds, Quail, Rivers, Rush, Rye,
Southern, Stone, Tower, Townsend,
Vine, Wells, West, Wood, Woodbridge, Woods, Woodside, and Yarrow

Not to mention practically every British place name:

Brookshire, Cornwall, England, English, Kent, London, Welsh, York, etc. ad infinitum.

For sure, there are a lot of interesting American surnames from other countries ("Lillebø", for example, which means the 'small mound' in the fishing village where my grandfather's farm was located in western Norway).  But the historical ties of our language and culture are still above all to Britain, and it's interesting to follow the course of these names from medieval descriptors in olde England to their place in contemporary America.

Our being is rooted in the past, even as we live in the present and consider the future.  A look back from time to time helps to nourish the roots.

© 2006 H. Paul Lillebo

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