Surnames of Occupation

By the close of the fourteenth century the English system of surnames had come into general use, many of them deriving from the trades and crafts followed by their bearers.

Modern English surnames are so many fragments of medieval conversation, crystallized into permanent form. Nicknames, relationships, places of abode, occupations—words or phrases used casually to differentiate one neighbour from another—these have stuck like tags and are still with us after six or seven centuries. In the thirteenth-and fourteenth-century rolls, we see the names as the clerk wrote them down, ‘Hugo filius Walteri’ or ‘Adam le piscator’; but the modern surname echoes the actual spoken word, Watson or Fisher.

Just how long ago these labels were finally fixed to our families is difficult to establish. Even before the Norman conquest, surnames were coming into use; but there followed a fluid period when, although most people had them and many were hereditary, others changed with each generation. By about 1300, however, it seems that most of the land-owning class had fixed names, while the working classes were tending to lag behind.

It is easy to see that it would go against the grain to call oneself Brewer if one lived by making tallow candles. But by 1400 the system was in general use; and it may be said that the great majority of English surnames date from before that year.

The first really scholarly study of the subject was made by the Reverend C. W. Bardsley, a North-Country parson, whose Dictionary of English Surnames was published in 1901; and following in his footsteps, Professor E. Weekley of Nottingham University wrote several interesting books on the subject. Since then, a great many more medieval documents have become accessible, and a group of distinguished Swedish scholars, including Professor E. Ekwall, have been doing much valuable and highly specialized work on English medieval surnames.

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