Surname Secrets: What’s in a name?


A surname passes through many generations connecting family members with that common surname. Many people are also named after deceased relatives to honor those who came before.

Surnames first appeared in the Middle Ages as a way to record and document people and for tax purposes. Details included given names, nicknames, parents’ names, occupation and residence. This personal information later became an important part of the history of surnames.

Women brewsters in the early 1900s in Seattle. Image credit: THE SEATTLE TIMES ARCHIVE

We recently wrote about jobs that no longer exist, and it was common for our ancestors to have surnames based on their occupation such as Cook, Carpenter or Smith. By looking at their surnames, it often leads us to learn more about our relatives’ lives. Yet there are many occupational surnames with hidden meanings. Here are a few of our favorites:

For a full list, click here to read the article at Mentalfloss.

1. BREWSTER – A woman brewer

2. CHAPMAN – An old English word for merchant from the root “chap” meaning cheap

3. HUSSEY – A shortening of “housewife”

4. KISSER – Someone who made leather armor for thighs called a cuisse, from Old French.

5. PARKER – A gamekeeper in a game park

6. WEBB, WEBBER, WEBSTER – Derived from webba, the Old English for weaver

7. SPENCER – Someone who dispensed a lord’s provisions

8. KELLOGG – Derived from “kill hog” and referred to a butcher

9. JENNER – Comes from Old French engigneor meaning engineer or maker of military machines

10. BAXTER – A women who baked. In Old English the suffix –ster was used to form feminine nouns Do you know the meaning behind your surname? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Glenn

    October 2, 2014

    Kittredge is place name. It comes from Gaelic Keter meaning a steep place and the english word edge. In English my name would be Edgecliff. In Scottish the Gaelic gets changed to Kadir.

  • David Drage

    October 3, 2014

    Drage – Scandinavian for Dragon, there was a Viking long ship called a Drage. Also modern kites are often called Drage across Europe (I assume this translates as Dragon kites).

  • Ann Marie Bridges

    October 3, 2014

    My grandfather was a Dyches. His father, coming from England, added an s to Dyche. No one seemed to know why he did that. I later found out that Dyche meant someone who lived near or cared for a “ditch” and that by adding the s to the surname, my g-grandfather was following a tradition that indicated adding the s meant “son”. If anyone else has any insights into this surname, would love to hear from them.

  • Maureen Haggerty

    October 5, 2014

    Haggerty is generally said to mean “grandson of the unjust,” though I’ve also seen suggestions it refers to victims of injustice.

    The family crest features 3 hooded men, who look to me like highwaymen or executioners.

  • Tom McGorray

    October 5, 2014

    COPPER – was a barrel maker

    Tom McGorray

  • Quinn

    October 6, 2014

    Does anyone know the meaning of the names, West, Libury and

    The other name is Quinn, which I believe is a very old Celtic
    Irish name with the meaning of Counsel.

  • Jeanne McCormack

    October 14, 2014

    My mother in law was a Haggerty, so thank you Maureen for posting your message above of its meaning. I will have to do research on this at some time. Her grandfather was born Glengomna, Draperstown, Derry Ireland and died in New Jersey, USA. He also had ties to Philadelphia, a sister and brother.

    I am a McCormick/mack and have read that the Mc is son of Cormac

  • Peter Jensen

    October 15, 2014

    In Scandinavian countries most surnames ends with -sen or -son, meaning son of. Jensen means son of Jens. Hansson means son of Hans. And so on…

  • Miguel A. Schiel

    January 24, 2016

    El Schiel name is a nickname for the German region of Westphalia.
    Were adapted from traditional names, or were added to describethe physical characteristics of their bearers.
    Schiel, is a hereditary surname for a person who was wild orclamorous. The name derives originally from the German word”Schel” which means “loud” and “loud”.
    In the medieval era, many different cultural groups lived in the German states. There are so many regional variations of Germansurnames. Since that was the “Westphalian”
    They spoke German, which is similar to modern Dutch. ManyGerman names carry suffixes that identify where they came from.Others have phrases attached that identify something about theoriginal bearer. Other variations in German names resulted from thefact that medieval scribes worked without the aid of any spellingrules.
    The spelling variations include SCHELL known Schiel, Schelle, Schelling, Scheller and others.
    First found in Westphalia, where the name emerged in medieval times, as one of the notable families in the region. From thethirteenth century the surname was identified with the great social and economic evolution which made this territory a signalcontributor to the development of German nation.
    Since 1526 they had their seat at the manor Schellenberg near Essen.

    l apellido Schiel, es un apodo de la región alemana de Westfalia.
    Fueron adaptados de nombres tradicionales, o fueron agregados para describir las características físicas de sus portadores.
    Schiel, es un apellido hereditario para una persona que era salvaje o clamorosa. El nombre deriva originariamente de la palabra alemana “Schel”, que significa “ruidoso” o “ruidosamente”.
    En la era medieval, muchos diversos grupos culturales vivieron en los estados alemanes. Hay así muchas variaciones regionales de apellidos alemanes. A partir de esa era los “Westfalianos”
    Hablaron alemán, que es similar al holandés moderno. Muchos nombres alemanes llevan los sufijos que identifican de donde vinieron. Otros tienen frases atadas que identifican algo sobre el portador original. Otras variaciones en nombres alemanes resultaron del hecho de que los escribanos medievales trabajaron sin ayuda de cualquier regla del deletreo.
    Las variaciones del deletreo del SCHIEL conocido incluyen SCHELL, SCHELLE, SCHELLING, SCHELLER y otros.
    Primero encontrado en Westfalia, en donde el nombre emergió en épocas medievales, como una de las familias notables de la región. A partir del siglo XIII el apellido fue identificado con la gran evolución social y económica que hizo este territorio a un contribuidor de la señal al desarrollo de nación alemana.
    Desde 1526 tenían su asiento en el señorío Schellenberg, cerca de Essen.