Category: surnames

Occupation Names: A Labor Day Salute

child workbench3

With Labor Day upon us, it seems like the perfect moment to focus on the original pre-barbecue meaning of the holiday and celebrate hard-working occupational names.  So we’re looking back to wtoe we wrote on the subject in our book Beyond Ava & Aiden, but here focusing on the less used, fresher sounding examples, and those with less obvious meanings, so no Archer, Shepherd or Baker.

Have you noticed how many of the boys’ names climbing up the ladder end in the letters ‘er’? They sound really new and cool, but in reality a large proportion of them actually originated in medieval England as occupational surnames, when Timothy the Tanner morphed into Timothy Tanner—as if in our day Pete the Programmer became Pete Programmer. And even if a large proportion of these are trades that no longer exist in this Digital Age, and some of their meanings have been lost to time, part of their appeal as a group lies in their throwback reference to basic concepts of honest labor, adding some historical heft to their appeal, and giving them more weight than other fashionable two-syllable names.  They offer the parents of boy babies a comfortable middle ground between the sharper-edged single syllable names (Holt, Colt), and the more ornate longer names (Gregory, Jeremy) of the recent past.  Here are some of the most usable ones, together with their original, sometimes arcane, meanings.

The er-ending names

  • Banner— flag bearer
  • Barker –stripper of bark from trees for tanning
  • Baxter— a baker, usually female
  • Beamer — trumpet player
  • Booker — scribe
  • Boyer — bow maker, cattle herder
  • Brenner — charcoal burner
  • Brewster — brewer of beer
  • Bridger — builder of bridges  
  • Carter — cart maker or driver, transporter of goods
  • Carver — sculptor
  • Chandler — candle maker
  • Chaucer — maker of breeches, boots or leg armor
  • Collier — charcoal seller, coal miner
  • Conner — inspector
  • Cooper — wooden barrel maker
  • Coster — fruit grower or seller
  • Currier — leather finisher
  • Cutler — knife maker
  • Decker — roofer
  • Dexter — dyer
  • Draper — woolen cloth maker or seller
  • Duffer — peddler
  • Farrier— iron worker
  • Fletcher — arrow maker
  • Forester — gamekeeper, forest warden
  • Foster — sheep shearer
  • Fowler — hunter of wild birds
  • Glover — maker or seller of gloves
  • Granger — granary worker
  • Harper —  harp maker or player
  • Hollister — female brothel keeper!!
  • Hooper —  one who makes or fits hoops for barrels
  • Hopper — dancer, acrobat
  • Hunter — huntsman
  • Jagger — a Yorkshire name meaning peddler or carrier
  • Keeler — boatman or barge builder
  • Kiefer — barrel maker or overseer of a wine cellar
  • Lander — launderer
  • Lardner — servant in charge of the larder
  • Lorimer — a spur maker
  • Mercer — merchant, especially in luxury fabrics
  • Miller — grinder of corn
  • Nayler — maker of nails
  • Parker — gamekeeper in a medieval private park
  • Porter — gate keeper, carrier of goods
  • Potter — maker or seller of earthenware pottery
  • Quiller — scribe
  • Ranger — game warden
  • Rider/Ryder — cavalryman, horseman, messenger
  • Sadler– saddle maker
  • Salter — worker in or seller of salter
  • Sayer –several meanings:  assayer of metal, food taster, woodcutter (as in Sawyer)
  • Slater — roofer
  • Sumner — court summoner
  • Thatcher — roofer
  • Tolliver — metal worker (Anglicization of the italian Taliaferro)
  • Turner — turner of wood on a lathe
  • Webster — weaver, originally female
  • Wheeler— wheel maker

 Other occupational names

  • Baird— minstrel or poet  
  • Beaman— beekeeper
  • Chaplin— clergyman
  • Farrar— blacksmith, metalworker
  • Fisk— fisherman
  • Reeve— bailiff, chief magistrate
  • Smith— metal worker, blacksmith
  • Steele— a steel worker
  • Todd— a fox hunter
  • Travis— gate keeper, toll collector
  • Ward— watchman, guard
  • Wright— carpenter, joiner

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"Dare" - 2009 Sundance Portrait Session

The world’s been abuzz lately with the casting of relative unknown Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. While others might be interested in the young actress’s previous films or her fashion sense, we name nerds can think of only one thing: Where’d she get that cool name? And how can I get one like it?

Rooney Mara comes by her Irish-surname-as-first semi-honestly: It’s her real middle name and her mother’s original last name. Born Patricia Rooney Mara, the actress dropped her pedestrian first name in favor of her more exotic middle, which means red-haired. Great-grandfather Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rarely heard as a first name — there were 23 boys born with the name in 2009, and fewer than five girls — the new prominence of Miss Mara can only add power to the growing trend of using Irish last names as firsts.  And while Irish surname names have been used for girls as well as boys in recent years, Rooney Mara‘s fame seems certain to further feminize the image of these names.

Other choices with celebrity or pop culture connections include:

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Like Jenny-from-the-block (well maybe not quite), I was a roller-skating, rope-jumping, potsy- (hopscotch to you) playing child of the Bronx streets.  At that time I was completely unaware of how the mostly pretentious –sounding names of those streets might have referred back to past heroic figures (Popham?  Burnside? Bathgate?).  In my mind what they were identified with was the kids I knew who lived on them—Nelson Avenue was associated with the Mazur sisters, Jessup with my classmate Nancy, Loring with my bf Margery’s grandmother, and Shakespeare with my elementary school.

(One name that fascinated me and couldn’t be ignored was Featherbed Lane, a street that I passed on the way to school every day and was home to my Aunt Pearl and family.  It was only later that I discovered the probable origins of the name—that during the Revolutionary War, locals covered the street with feather beds so that the soldiers fighting the British could move quietly through the area—though there were other explanations as well.)

Here are some of the mostly surname names from my neighborhood and beyond:




























During my childhood, if you were from the Bronx, it was practically in your DNA to hate all things Brooklyn.  But now that I’ve matured into a more rational and objective name observer, I do have to admit that that other borough does have  a better selection of street names—less stuffy and a lot more that are actually suited  to a baby.  In fact there are so many Courts and Places with standard first names that you have to wonder if the streets weren’t named after the builders’ own babies.

Here’s a selection—there are lots more:




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Since April is National Poetry Month, this seems like a perfect time to revisit some of the most poetic of baby names. We’ve already seen starbabies named Poet (Soleil Moon Frye), Sonnet (Forest Whitaker), Auden (Noah Wyle), Tennyson (Russell Crowe), and of course any number of Dylans (traceable back to poet Thomas), not to mention a growing profusion of Emersons.

By some quirk of fate — or maybe it’s prophecy fulfillment – poets in general seem to have more poetic surnames than prose writers do.  Here are some poet-name possibilities:


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In the course of leading a basically bicoastal life, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time walking and driving the streets of both New York and L.A.  And I have to say, as rhythmic and melodious as so many of the California names are– e.g. Alameda, Amanita, Mariposa, Morella– for native New Yorker me there’s nothing like the solid, straight-forward, usable street names of downtown Manhattan, from Greenwich Village to the Wall Street area, names resonant with references to early American history.

The names of these meandering streets, lanes and alleys were subject to shifting trends.  Many British names were changed after the Revolutionary War, for example, and for a time fashion dictated that streets named for local property owners would carry the first names only.  Leaders in the War of 1812 provided a goodly share of names, as did figures connected to Trinity Church.

Here are Lower Manhattan street names with their historical roots–any of which would make a possible namesake.

ALLENafter War of 1812 hero Captain William Henry Allen

ANNnamed for either a member of the Beekman clan or the wife of Captain William Henry Allen

ASTOR –named for John Jacob Astor, “the richest man in America

BARCLAYReverend Henry Barclay was the second rector of Trinity Church

BARROW—  artist Thomas Barrow was known for his portraits of Trinity Church

BAXTERoriginally called Orange Street, renamed for Mexican War hero Colonel Charles Baxter

BAYARDNicholas Bayard was mayor of NY in 1686

BENSONEgbert Benson was New York’s first Attorney General

BETHUNE—named for philanthropist Johanna Graham Bethune

BLEECKER—the street ran through the farm of Anthony L. Bleecker

CARMINEfor  Trinity Church vestryman Nicolas Carman (sic)

CATHERINE the wife of land owner Henry Rutgers

CHARLES ––named for landowner Charles Christopher Amos

CHARLTONDr. John Charlton, an English-born surgeon, became president of the N.Y. Medical Society

CHRISTOPHERalso named for Charles Christopher Amos, a local landowner

CHRYSTIE – named for Lt.-Col. John Christie (sic), killed in the War of 1812

CLARKSON – Revolutionary War hero Matthew Clarkson

CLINTONGeorge Clinton, was a Revolutionary War hero and the first governor of New York State

CORNELIA a beloved granddaughter of landowner Robert Herring

CROSBYnamed for William Bedlow Crosby, who inherited much of the Lower East Side

DELANCEYnamed after James De Lancey, Sr, whose farm was located in what is now the LES

DUANEJames Duane was an early mayor of the city

ELDRIDGEnamed for a Lieutenant killed in the War of 1812


ESSEXnamed for the English county (as were nearby Norfolk and Suffolk Streets)

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