Thursday, August 23, 2007

Teaching English as a Foreign Language: What’s in a Name?


The history of surnames or last names, in English is a fascinating one. In the sixteenth century (from the 1530s to about 1700) nearly 70 per cent of all men in England were named John, Thomas, William, Richard, Robert, Henry, Nicolas, Walter and Edward. Women seemingly faired a bit better but nearly 70 per cent of women were named Elizabeth, Joan, Margaret, Anne, Alice, Agnes, Isabel, Jane, Mary, Katherine and Margery. So not surprisingly, when distinguishing family names became essential, surnames began being “created” and used. Even in many non-English-speaking countries, English surnames are in widespread use. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners find the topic a highly fascinating one – especially if their name is included. First we’ll look at how some English surnames were derived.

Surnames of Occupations

One key form was to distinguish people by their occupations. This was especially effective if the person was highly skilled at their profession as many were – some even to the point of being renowned.

Here are some examples of occupation-related surnames along with their general meanings.

Mason – a person who works with stone or masonry
Miller or Mills – a worker in a granary or flour mill
Pinter – a form of the word for painter
Cooper – a person who makes wooden barrels for wines and other liquids
Stewart – a profession similar to an overseer or at times, a butler
Tanner – prepared animal hides for making clothes, hats and other items
Shoemaker – also often called a cobbler as an occupation
Shepherd – herder of sheep, goats and other domestic animal herds
Brewer – formulated beers, ale, hard liquors and sometimes wines
Smith – a skilled tradesman in metal fabrications
Wright – a skilled tradesman in metal work
Taylor – maker of (principally) men’s clothes
Hunter – killed wild animals for the table
Butler – a man who cares for running a large household
Weaver – weaves cloths and textiles
Fowler – often a hunter of birds and fowl
Fletcher – a person who makes arrows: a very important profession for hundreds of years
Thatcher – person who makes, repairs roofs using leaves, thatch or straw
Carver – a stone or wood carver of
Gardner – cares for fruits and vegetables in a small plot of land
Cook(e) – same as a person who job is to prepare foods
Carpenter – a worker in all kinds of wood
Barber – cuts hair, trims beards and moustaches – an important grooming aid for nobles
Bishop – a higher-level religious or church official; Friar, a lower level religious official
Bowman or Archer – a person skilled in the use of a bow and arrow
Potter – a worker in earths and clays, maker of clay pots and vessels
Turner - a potter’s aid or helper who “turned” the potter’s wheel


In considering the selection, development and evolution of surnames in English, a list of surnames ( ) helps to offer us some enlightenment as to not only the variety of surnames that became available, but also their frequency and derivations. The history of surnames or last names, in English is indeed a fascinating one. Next, we’ll look at how some other commonly used English surnames were derived

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an English language teaching and learning expert author and university professor in Cali, Colombia. Live your dreams in paradise, find romance, high adventure and get paid while travelling for free. For more information on entering or advancing in the fascinating field of teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language send for the no-cost pdf Ebook, “If You Want to Teach English Abroad, Here’s What You Need to Know”, by sending an e-mail with "free ELT Ebook" in the subject line. For comments, questions, requests, to receive more information or to be added to his free TESOL articles and teaching materials mailing list, e-mail:

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