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What’s in a Name?

How do you feel about your name? However you feel – love it or hate it – it’s your name. For most of us, our name is inextricably linked with our identity – even if we decide to change our name, or if we to decide not change our names when are married; if we hate our nicknames and want people to call us by our “proper” name. These are all decisions that we make about our names – about our identity – who we are.

Knowing your family name give clues to who you are, as well. And where did these “surnames” come from anyway. When the world was much “smaller” and we lived in close communities, it was usually simple enough to say that so-and-so’s name was John. Then there were more and more Johns, so we had to say that this John was the one who lived by the lake, and that John was the one the was the farmer, and that another John was the son of John, the farmer. So, this led to the differentiation between John Lake, John Farmer and John Johnson (“son of John”). As the world got larger and people started to go farther afield, you may have had to begin to identify yourself by where you came from, or were you were born. Does the name “Jesus of Nazareth” ring a bell? But professions were still helpful in identifying people: “John the Baptist”

My last name is Evans, which is a Welsh variation of names like “Johnson” (“son of John”) and “MacDonald” (“son of Donald”). So “Evans” means “son of Evan”. Names like “son of” are pretty straightforward and easily traceable.

Maybe more obscure (and lots of fun) are other surnames that can give you clues about your family heritage. Here are a few to consider. Are any of these names in your family tree?

Cooper – your ancestor was most likely a barrel-maker.

Smith – yes, very common and here’s why: it could mean a silversmith, a tinsmith, a goldsmith. Smiths of all kinds of metals were essential to the development of culture and community throughout history.

Many surnames derived from textile-related professions. Let’s start with some obvious ones:

Weaver: yeah – no explanation needed there. But Webster also comes from the same profession. The yarn on the loom is often referred to as the “web”.

Dyer: also exactly what you would think it would be. Back in the day, however, not a respected profession. It was pretty toxic and smelly – they often used urine as a mordant and to process the dyestuffs to begin with. Similar to a Tanner – the acids in urine helped to break down the fibers in the leather and release the hair coat on top.

Shepherd: this one is pretty obvious – yes, your forefathers likely herded sheep, hence “She(e)p –herd”. Whereas if your name is Herd or Hurd, your family tree probably also includes someone involved in animal husbandry, but he could have herded cattle, goats, or. other kind of domesticated animal.

Fuller or Walker may mean that your ancestor “fulled” or “wa(u)lked” cloth. Like “boiled wool” that you can still find today, a “fuller” worked cloth (usually by walking on it) until it was tight and dense. Those of you who knit bags and hats, etc, and put them in the washer and dryer to “felt” them. You are Fullers. (A side note on Walker is that there were other professions that use the labor of “walkers”, one of which was the vintners. So, if your name is Walker, you may have to do some research to see if they worked making textiles or wine!)fullerpic1

Shearer: Yup. Your folks sheared the sheep, but they may have also sheared the finished fabric. That is sheared the nap, or the fuzzy surface, to make a smooth, tailored looking cloth.


This brings us to: Taylor or Tailor: Your folks made clothes from the woven cloth.

Obviously, these are all derived from English language professions. Of course, textile worker were found in all countries:

French origins include Lane and Laine – generally any general wool worker.

In Italy, a “Tessaro” was a weaver and a “Mondadori” was a wool sorter.

Have I inspired your curiosity? What did you ancestors do? Who were they? How did they inform the development of the person you are – your identity?