In most cases, these so-called “occupation” names started out as surnames before transferring into personal given names in more modern times. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, surnames were mostly given to members of the aristocracy but by the 15th century all British citizens had them (as a form of identification for the purposes of taxation). While the Irish and Scottish-Gaels already had “clan” names, the general English population derived their surnames primarily from one of four places: 1) patronymic (i.e., passed from the father’s name like Harrison, Jackson, Benson, etc); 2) location-based surnames (derived from the location where one was born such as Beckham or Harley; 3) nicknames describing one’s personality or physical features (Corbin, Marley, Todd); and, last but not least, 4) occupations.
Occupations were an obvious way to identify and differentiate all of the Johns, Williams and Roberts living in the same town. John the town’s baker became John Baker. William the carpenter was called William Carpenter. And Robert the stone-worker became known as Robert Mason. Not only that, but certain occupations were highly regarded in medieval England. For example, a Miller was the town’s mill-keeper, to whom farmers would bring their grain to ground – so Mr. Miller was a super important person to know! Or if you needed to build a house, you better call on Mr. Sawyer (the dude who saws the wood for you).
Below are several more examples of names that started out as surnames which originally described a person’s occupation. The other great thing about this list of names is that many of them are gender-neutral and can be freely bestowed on either baby boys or baby girls.
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” – Mark Twain. Let’s start with names having to do with folks who worked with textiles and fabrics. So if you’re a clothes-horse, you may like one of these names for your child. Dexter was a cloth dyer. Landry was in charge of laundering the textiles while Layne was a wool worker. Scarlett was a seller of expensive cloth (typically brilliant in color) and Tanner was a leather worker. Taylor would cut the fabric and fit clothes for people. In the process of making cloth, Tucker was in charge of softening the fabric and Walker’s job was to trample on the cloth to help thicken it.
“Buy land. They’re not making it anymore” – Mark Twain. These are folks who had to do with working on or managing some aspect of land. For instance, Byron was the guy who looked after cattle, Chase was a huntsman and Fisher was the dude who was skillful at catching fish for food. Grayson was the son of a steward, someone who managed an important household or large estate. A man named Holden was a holder of lands, or a shepherd who looked after the sheep; while Hunter was the guy who caught and killed animals for food or game. Kyler was a potato grower and Marshall was in charge of horses. Miller grounded everybody’s grain at the mill. Parker was the keeper of the park (a game-park used for hunting on an estate) and Warren was the warden of a game park. Porter was the estate’s door/gate-keeper. Ryder was a horse mounted messenger who rode across the land. And did you know that we get the names George/Georgia from the Greeks; they mean “farmer, earth-worker" and the female name Theresa probably means “harvester”.
"I do not like work, even when someone else does it." – Mark Twain. Here are some more examples of names having to do with important medieval jobs. Beckham made pickax tools and Carter transported goods in a cart. Case was a maker of boxes and Chandler was a candle seller. Clay made things from clay and Coleman burned coal. Cooper was a barrel maker and Fletcher was an arrow maker (while Archer used those arrows in his own skillful way). Gage was called upon to check weights and measures and Gunner loaded heavy artillery into cannons. Jagger peddled and hawked his goods while Mason worked with stone. Sawyer sawed wood, Turner worked the lathe and Tyler tiled. Spencer was in charge of weighing and dispensing food provisions on a large estate or monastery. If you wanted to cross the river, Travis the toll-taker would collect the fee. Wayne was a wagon maker or a wagon driver. Harper and Piper played their music.
“I believe I should really see the end of what is surely the grotesquest of all the swindles ever invented by man– monarchy.” – Mark Twain. Perhaps these could be considered the greatest of all “jobs” invented by man. The King is the grand-poobah of all occupations, but behind every great King is probably an even greater Queen (Regina and Reina mean Queen in Latin/Spanish). And lucky are those with the following hereditary titles: Prince (means “first to sieze”, as in the throne) and Princess is his female counterpart. Earls used to be the “chief noblemen” in England until they were eventually displaced by the Dukes (“leaders”). Marquis ruled the borderlands. Much lower on the medieval totem pole were Pages (little boys who served the knights). Other important occupations serving the reigning English monarch? Bailey was the bailiff, the King’s officer on the local level who collected the taxes in the shire. The Justice upheld the laws by dispensing fair judgments and Clark was a cleric or scribe whose job was critical to society in the Middle Ages prior to the invention of the printing press.
“I do not know what we should do without the pulpit. We could better spare the sun–the moon, anyway.” – Mark Twain. Got religion? These are jobs related to the Church. While we think of college Deans today, the name originally described an ecclesiastical supervisor (Deanna is the feminine form of this name). A Deacon ranks below the priest (or minister), and the name Kohen actually means “priest” in Hebrew. The Scottish MacCadáin clan was responsible for maintaining and managing church lands in their respective locales; while the O’Lennons did the same in Ireland. Even before Christianity, however, way, way back in the pagan days of the Roman Republic, Camillus (Camilo/Camille) was the name given to the acolyte (attendant) of religious rituals.
Finally, in our “catch-all” category, here are some other work-related names to consider. Amalia (Amelia/Amalie) comes from the Germanic root “amal” meaning “to work, industrious” (laborious). The same root gave us Millicent which means “strong in work”. The name Asa is Hebrew for “doctor”. Crew is a word to describe a group of people working together (and Remy is a French “oarsman” who rows on crew). The Dutch surname Schuyler (Skyler/Skylar) described a scholar or school teacher. The Irish surname Teagan comes from the Gaelic Tadhgán (a diminutive of “tadhg”) which identified a “poet, storyteller” (poets and storytellers played an integral role in early Celtic societies). And last but definitely not least is Paris. Yes, that’s right. Paris. Paris, France was named by the Romans after their conquest of Gaul. It was named after the Celtic Parisii tribe who dwelled there before the Latins came. Many etymologists speculate that the tribe’s name comes from an ancient Celtic-Gaulish word “parisio” which means “the working people” (craftsmen and artisans).
So there you have it. Let us celebrate all the working stiffs on Labor Day because, as Sophocles once said, “Without labor nothing prospers”.