Have you ever thought about your surname? Do you know where it comes from, what it means? Many English-language surnames are derived from jobs:

Smith: metalworker

Carpenter: self-explanatory

Chandler: dealer in equipment for ships and boats

Cooper: barrel maker

Fletcher: arrow maker

Wright: maker or builder

Cartwright: cart maker

Mason: stone worker

Harper: harp player

Singer: self-explanatory

Taylor: from tailor

Weaver: fabric worker

Shepherd: self-explanatory

Dyer: a person who dyes clothes or other materials

Gardner/Gardiner: self-explanatory

Cook: self-explanatory

Fisher: self-explanatory

Thatcher: maker of roofs with plant stalks

Slater: maker of roofs with stone slates

Tyler: tile-layer

Potter: maker of pottery

Skinner: removed and worked with animal skins

And there are many more.

A lot of other surnames were originally patronymics: when one’s surname is derived from one’s father’s first name. Davidson and Johnson are both common examples of this, meaning David’s son and John’s son. Such names are often Nordic in origin, and to this day most Icelandic people gain their surnames from their father, e.g. Olafsson or Olafsdottir. Many Irish and Scottish names were also originally patronymics. Any name with O’ was originally a patrynomic. Ó is the Gaelic word for of, so my own surname O’Donnell, for example, was original Ó’Dónaill or Ó’Domhnaill, meaning son of Dónall (an old Gaelic first name). Similarly, any name beginning with Mac or Mc has the same meaning, coming from the Gaelic word for son, mac. Names beginning with Fitz, e.g. Fitzpatrick, are similar, and are Norman in origin.

And then there are the unusual ones. I always wondered how someone could be given the surname Ramsbottom. I thought maybe it was given as punishment. But it has nothing to do with rams and only a little to do with bottoms. It’s the name of an English town with the name meaning land suitable for agriculture at the bottom of a valley. Having this surname was simply an indicator that one was from this town.

Coward is even more unusual, as it was originally a byword for bravery. Cu-weard in Old English meant cattle guard. At a time when cattle were a sign of wealth, a cattle-guard was a key figure, being constantly vigilant and wary of cattle rustlers.

I like the directness of being named after your job, town, or father’s name. I think I wouldn’t mind Teacher as a surname. Galway or Patrickson would also be pretty good. How would you feel if you got your surname in one of these ways?


25 thoughts on “Surnames

  1. I enjoyed this post, having done some thinking along the same lines.

    Our name supposedly comes from Les Beaux, a castle in south France> turned to Vaux in Normandy > to Vaus in England > to Vans and Vance in Gallowayshire, southern Scotland. The other side, the Turners…well, that’s obvious. Carter is another common trade name.


  2. I think having the last name Psychologist or Scottson would be a bit weird and they don’t work as well as other last names. However being named after where I’m from (Pearland) would sound better 😊
    Like you mentioned, in Denmark it’s common to have last names of Hansen (my boyfriend’s last name), Jensen, Larsen, Andersen, Madsen, and Rasmussen to name a few. They have become family names instead of each son being named after their father.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My language teacher once looked up the meaning of the surnames of every pupil she taught, but unfortunately she didn’t find an explanation for mine! So I guess I’ll never know where my surname (Buytaert) comes from… it’s something I can live with you know 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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