Surnames: The Meaning Behind the Name

Posted January 8, 2015 by Amanda | 3 Comments

What’s behind a name? Typically, surnames are passed down through many generations, creating a web of connected family members. The use of surnames is common in most countries around the world, but did you know they didn’t always exist?

During the 13th and 14th centuries in Britain, hereditary surnames were adopted, first amongst the aristocracy and then eventually everyone. These early surnames were often derived from patronymics, places, personal characteristics and occupations. Because of this, surnames can give us additional insight about our ancestors by providing clues about their lives.

Surnames: The Meaning Behind the Name

With surnames such as Carpenter, Taylor and Fisher, it is obvious to deduce what the surname bearer did for a living. Over time, however, as the names of occupations fell out of favor or became obsolete, so did the surname’s obvious connection. Check out these occupational surnames whose meanings have fallen out of common knowledge:

CHAPMAN - An Old English name for a merchant, with the root word “chap” meaning cheap

DAUBER – A dauber was a plasterer or a person who applied daub to make a wattle and daub cottage

WOODWARD – Meaning “guardian of the wood,” a woodward was a forester

SPENCER – A spencer was a steward or one who dispensed a lord’s provisions to those who lived on his land and worked at his estate

CHANDLER – A chandler was originally a maker or seller of candles

BREWSTER – A woman brewer was called a brewster

FLETCHER – A fletcher was someone who made or sold arrows

LEACH - The name originally indicated a physician. During the Middle Ages, it was common medical practice to use leeches to bleed people

WRIGHT – This was derived from the Old English wryhta, meaning worker. A wright was someone who was a craftsman or builder

BAXTER - A woman baker was called a baxter

Post written by Amanda

Amanda is the Marketing Communications Manager at Geni. If you need any assistance, she will be happy to help!

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  • martha deleon

    Do appreciate your organization, however, found two mistakes that seem careless on my family tree involving the profile for Antoine Trudell, my 8th great granfather. The first is his baptism, which is recorded with a date preceding his birth. The second is the listing of his birth twice. The first is correct, but the second is the birth of his son , Antoine, born in 1699. Your listing inserts that at the bottom of the profile with him being 36 years old at time of his birth. This Antoine is my 7th great grandfather, born December 28th, 1699 and dying in December of 1774.

    • geniblog

      Hi Martha, it’s easy to fix mistakes in the tree. You can simply click “Edit” on the profile to update the information yourself or contact the profile managers to request they update the information.

  • Sara

    Oh dear, how can I find where McKeefer came from?