Surnames Derived From Occupations

When surnames first came into popular use in 12th-century Europe, many people came to be identified by what they did for a living. A blacksmith named John became John Smith. A man who made his living grinding flour from grain took the name Miller. Does your family name come from the work your ancestors did long ago? 

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a man leading sheep

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Occupation: shepherd or leather tanner
The Barker surname may derive from the Norman word barches, meaning “shepherd,” the person who watches over a flock of sheep. Alternatively, a barker may also have been a "tanner of leather," from the Middle English bark, meaning "to tan."

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a man dying cloth
Getty / Annie Owen

Occupation: Dyer
Men named Black may have been cloth dyers who specialized in black dyes. In medieval times, all cloth was originally white and had to be dyed to create colorful cloth. 

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Wooden Wheels

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Occupation: Delivery man
A person who drove a cart pulled by oxen, carrying goods from town to town, was called a carter. This occupation eventually became the surname used to identify many such men.

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candles hanging from a wooden post

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Occupation: Candlemaker
From the French word 'chandelier,' the Chandler surname often referred to a person who made or sold tallow or lye candles or soap. Alternatively, they may have been a retail dealer in provisions and supplies or equipment of a specified kind, such as a "ship chandler."

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a man working on a barrel

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Occupation: Barrel maker
A cooper was someone who made wooden barrels, vats, or casks; an occupation that commonly became the name they were referred to by their neighbors and friends. Related to COOPER is the surname HOOPER, which referred to the craftsmen who made the metal or wooden hoops to bind the barrels, casks, buckets, and vats made by coopers.

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fisherman on a ship
Getty / Jeff Rotman

Occupation: Fisherman
This occupational name derives from the Old English word fiscere, meaning "to catch fish." Alternate spellings of this same occupational surname include Fischer (German), Fiszer (Czech and Polish), Visser (Dutch), de Vischer (Flemish), Fiser (Danish) and Fisker (Norwegian).

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a man riding on a horse with jousting gear
Getty / John Warburton-Lee

Occupation: Champion wrestler or jouster
A strong man who was a champion at jousting or wrestling may have been called by this surname, Kemp derives from the Middle English word kempe, which came from Old English cempa, meaning "warrior" or "champion." ​ 

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a scoop filled with powder

Duncan Davis/Getty Images

Occupation: Miller
A man who made his living grinding flour from grain often took on the surname Miller. This same occupation is also the origin of many various spellings of the surname including Millar, Mueller, Müller, Mühler, Moller, Möller and Møller.

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a man heating up and working with metal

Edward Carlile Portraits/Getty Images

Occupation: Metal worker
Anyone who worked with metal was called a smith. A blacksmith worked with iron, a whitesmith worked with tin, and a goldsmith worked with gold. This was one of the most common occupations in medieval times, so it is little wonder that SMITH is now among the most common surnames worldwide. 

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a man building a wall
Getty / Henry Arden

Occupation: Mason
This surname was often bestowed upon a special kind of mason; someone who specialized in building walls and wall structures. Interestingly, it may also be an occupational name for someone who boiled sea water to extract the salt, from the Middle English well(en), meaning "to boil."

More Occupational Surnames

Hundreds of surnames initially derived from the occupation of the original bearer. Some examples include: Bowman (archer), Barker (leather tanner), Collier (coal or charcoal seller), Coleman (one who gathered charcoal), Kellogg (hog breeder), Lorimer (one who made harness spurs and bits), Parker (someone in charge of a hunting park), Stoddard (horse breeder), and Tucker or Walker (one who processed raw cloth by beating and trampling it in water).

Does your family name come from the work your ancestors did long ago? Search for the origin of your surname in this free Glossary of Last Name Meanings & Origins.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Surnames Derived From Occupations." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). Surnames Derived From Occupations. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Surnames Derived From Occupations." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).