Q&A: Cooper, Chandler, Dexter? The origin of surnames

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, what’s in a name…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about surnames?

A: Sure, what do you want to know?

Q: Well, first, why do we call them “surnames” in the first place? What is the “sur” referring to?

A: Good question. “Sur” in this context comes from the Latin “super” meaning “above”. A surname was an “additional name” – over and above your baptismal one. 

Q: Surplus to requirements, you might say!

A: Indeed. The Old French sornom and Anglo-French surnoun were early prototypes. In the 12th century only noble folk had them, but over the next two centuries the idea of a “family name” was passed down to common people until they were everywhere by the 1400s.

Q: You might say they became “household names”! Bahahaha.

A: Very clever. By the way, the term “nickname” had a similar beginning – starting life as “neke name” also meaning “additional name”, albeit a more familiar one, usually given in derision.

Q: “Neke” means additional?

A: Well, it was originally an”eke name” – from the 13th century verb “eken” – meaning to increase or lengthen. The word “eke” is considered archaic these days, however it does live on in the phrase “eke out” – such as “to eke out a living on a small wage”.

Q: Fascinating. But back to surnames – I’m curious about the ones that were named after professions.

A: Ah yep. As we said, until the 1300s, most common people didn’t have this additional name, so they simply defined themselves on what they did all day.

Q: Lucky we don’t still do that, or my cousin Zach’s surname would be Couchplaystationpizza.

A: Haha, yeah. So, some of the obvious ones still common as professions today are “Baker”, “Cook”, “Farmer”, “Fisher”, “Butcher”, “Barber”, “Carpenter” and so on. Others may not be as common today but are still easy to trace.

Q: Such as?

A: “Archer”, “Miller”, “Potter”, “Draper”, “Weaver”, “Sadler”, “Shepherd”, “Tanner” and so on.

Q: Oh is “Tanner” someone who works at a tanning salon?

A: No – they would take the hides of animals and turn them into leather. This took place in a ‘tannery’. 

Q: That’s funny as my great aunt Doris has had so many tanning sessions, her skin does look like leather…

A: Then of course there is the most common name in most Western countries – “Smith”. It comes from “blacksmith” – with the name from “smite”, meaning to hit or strike metal. 

Q: So any metal?

A: Well a “blacksmith” typically used iron. There were also “goldsmiths”, “silversmiths”, “locksmiths” and “naismiths/nesmiths” – the latter fashioned knives. To name just a few!

Q: And “cooper” – that’s someone who makes barrels, yeah?

A: It is.

Q: What about “fletcher”?

A: A fletcher was someone who made arrows.

Q: And what does a “thatcher” make?

A: A lot of British people unhappy in the early 1980s.

Q: Hilarious.

A: Seriously though, a thatcher covers roofs with straw. 

Q: Just like in the 3 Little Pigs?

A: Sure, although I’m not sure the pigs employed outside contractors.

Q: Well, speaking of big bad wolves, what about the surname Wolfe or Woolf, like Virginia? Does that mean you went around huffing and puffing for a living?

A: Haha, no, not all of the names linked up to professions. “Woolf” for example (and variant spellings), was likely the name of a Saxon lord and that name was passed down. This kind of thing is called “patronymics”.

Q: So it doesn’t relate to the animal?

A: Not in that case. However, the surname “Fox” actually seems to have been first given out to English folk who had features resembling the animal!

Q: Timothy Olyphant has some answering to do…

A: Haha. Anyway, the evolution of surnames is even muddier than the evolution of words – with more origin stories than a Marvel cinematic universe.

Q: Do you have a muddy example?

A: Okay, let’s take the surname “Perry” – one origin is that it comes from someone who used to work around pear trees. However, that name was also given to someone who was the son of “Pierre”. This is patronymics again – seen more obviously in surnames like “Johnson”, “Thomson”, “O’Connell”, “Ivanovich”, “Rodriguez” and even the fabulous “Davidsdottir” in Iceland (literally meaning “David’s daughter”).

Q: Fascinating! So can you list some other common profession names that aren’t too obvious?

A: Sure. “Abbott” was a priest. “Bailey” was a bailiff. “Carter” transported goods via cart. “Chandler” made candles. “Cohen” was also a priest. “Dyer” was a man who dyed cloth, while “Dexter” was a woman who dyed the same cloth! “Fowler” was a bird-catcher. “Marshall” kept horses. “Stewart” looked after domestic animals. And “Palmer” made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land!

Q: We could go on all day.

A: We really could.

Q: Thanks for the overview. I’m off to look closely at photos of Sheryl Crow, Florence Nightingale, Larry Bird and Tony Hawk.

A: Don’t forget Taylor Swift!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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