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Occupational Surnames: Far from a fad

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occupational surnames

By Nick Turner

Back in 2012, I heard about parents naming their babies Draper in honor of Mad Men. I remember thinking the idea was daring but a little silly. These people were taking the last-name-as-first-name trend to an absurd conclusion, I griped.

It had been a few years since occupational surnames like Cooper and Mason had become popular, and I worried that pretty soon every kid would be a Fletcher, Tanner or Jagger. Traditional names were a dying species.

Then I made a startling discovery.

We had a book of our family’s history, which mostly contained long lists of ancestors’ names (going back centuries). I remember combing through the text for hours when I was choosing the names of our three children. That’s when I came across it.

One of my ancestors from the 1800s had named his son Draper. That’s right, our family had a Draper nearly 200 years ago. What made it even weirder was this poor boy’s last name was Shoemaker. So he had two conflicting occupations: Draper means cloth merchant, and Shoemaker means…well, you can probably figure that one out. Based on his name, I guess he could sell you the complete outfit.

I did a little more digging and it made me rethink the whole concept of occupational names. We may think of this as a craze among modern parents, but people in the 1800s were much more liberal with these kinds of names than we are today.

I measured the number of occupational names in the Top 1000 over three different years: 1880, 1946 and 2013. In tallying the numbers, I tried to only include names that are best known as last names and describe a person’s job. Fletcher, for instance, refers to an arrow maker. Parker is a park keeper, and Tyler is a maker of tiles.

In crunching the data, I relied on a nameberry list of occupational names and also included military titles such as Major. I excluded royal titles such as King, Earl and Duke. (Those are hardly real jobs anyway.) I also concentrated on boys’ names because occupational choices were mostly nonexistent for girls until recent years.

I initially figured there would be far more occupational names in the Top 1000 today than in the 1800s, but I was wrong. In 1880, there were 39 such names in the list. That compares with 17 in 1946 and 26 in 2013.

It’s worth noting that none of the occupational names in 1880 was a breakaway success (not like Mason or Cooper today), but there was a dazzling array of options.

Here’s a sampling of baby names from the 1880 list, along with the jobs that the names represent:

Butler (household servant)

Chalmers (servant of the chambers)

Commodore (naval officer)

Foster (forester)

General (army commander)

Smith (blacksmith)

Squire (knight’s companion)

Sumner (legal official who serves summons)

Warner (army guard)

Weaver (weaver of fabrics)

Wheeler (wheel maker)

There also were Doctors and Lawyers (but no Business Executives). The truncated Doc even registered, coming in at 646th that year. Author was 825th.

By 1946, when the baby boomers arrived, occupational names had fallen out of favor. The ones that survived were less literal: Doctor and Lawyer were gone in favor of picks like Marshall (a caretaker of horses), Spencer (a dispenser of provisions) and Booker (a scribe).

In 2013, parents were more willing to dabble in occupational names again  but still not with the playfulness of their 19th century forebears.

Mason, which means stoneworker, has become the most popular occupational name of all time, rising to fourth place last year (behind Noah, Liam and Jacob). Mason may feel trendy, but it appeared in all three lists (1880, 1946 and 2013). The same is true of Fletcher, Foster, Hunter, Major, Marshall, Parker, Porter, Spencer, Taylor, Tyler and Walker. (A walker was traditionally a person who walked on damp cloth to thicken it — not a zombie.)

These 12 names are the evergreens of occupational monikers.

Jagger (a variation on carter, or a person who carries things in a cart) has only recently climbed into the top 1,000  inspired by the Rolling Stones frontman, no doubt, rather than the name’s noble association with hauling things.

Cooper also is a relatively recent addition to the occupational pantheon. The name, which means barrel maker, began to catch on in the 1980s and now ranks 84th.

My own surname, Turner, ranked 596th in 1880 and then reappeared in the 2013 list at 886th. (It was nowhere to be seen in 1946.) It means a person who works on a lathe — typically to make furniture  and it might serve as a welcome alternative to people who feel Taylor and Tyler have run their course.

Draper, meanwhile, appears to be losing steam. Fewer than five babies were named it last year, which means it no longer registers in Social Security data. There were five baby Drapers in 2012 and six in 2011. Mad Men and its hero Don Draper end their run next year, which may not help the name recover.

Still, consider this: Eight kids were named Draper in 2001 — well before the AMC drama came on the air. That shows you that some parents liked the name before Don added any smoke-swirled sophistication to it.

It’s also one more reminder that occupational names are neither new nor a fad.

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About the author

Nick

Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.
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