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Musing on Surnames

Walking back to my office yesterday afternoon, I said hello to one of my colleagues who shares half of my surname. There is nothing particularly unusual in that but it did set me musing on the subject of surnames.

The received wisdom is that they developed from descriptions of things like where someone came from (such as London or Lincoln), your trade or profession (such as Smith or Baker) or perhaps some notable personal trait (such as Tall or Short). That makes sense if Jack is a brewer or John comes from Dudley (especially if he has now moved somewhere else and needs to be distinguished from John the other Farmer) and trades may well have often been passed down through the family when educational options were severely limited compared to today’s choices. At what point though did the names start to stick?

The internet is of course replete with possible answers (eg. this discussion from the Straight Dope board was fascinating). In Britain, it is suggested that it arose in the early to mid medieval period and related to that great certainty of life, taxes (because it is a lot harder to collect taxes if you can’t pin down who someone is). The practise isn’t universal though; Iceland was cited as an example of a contemporary society where someone carries a surname based on their parent’s forename (the father for the boys and the mother for the girls).

For me, it suggests that somewhere in my history were foresters (hence Forrester). Barker is less obvious; it definitely doesn’t mean people who barked but, while I had understood it to mean town criers, today the internet suggests it may come from tanners (who specialised in using tree bark tannins in curing leather) or shepherds (from an Old French word). Probably peasants the lot of ’em, although names tend to persist longer than family fortunes and stick around even as genes get comprehensively mingled.

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