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Where do tradesmen names come from?

Rhino Trade Insurance 10 March 2023

We’re a curious bunch at Rhino HQ, and sometimes you’ll find us pondering the big questions. 

Such as, why is a butcher called a butcher? Why are so many British surnames also the names of historical trades? Here, we’ll take a look at the origin of trade names, exploring the meaning behind some of the most common trades and consider why they became some of our most well-known British surnames. 

This is one for the history fans among us – pour yourself a cup of char (the old English word for tea) and let’s begin.

 

The origins of trades

For as long as humans have been around, we’ve worked with our hands. 

Since the very beginning, we’ve built and shaped the earth’s raw materials into useful objects that have been integral to the progression of the human race. 

From inventing the wheel, repairing dwellings, sculpting vessels to drink water from and perfecting the recipe for fresh bread, this historical handiwork laid the foundations for civilisation’s first trades.

 

The origins of trade names

Let’s start with the word ‘trade’ itself. The word 'trade' comes from the Old English word ‘tredan’ which means ‘to tread’. Think of the route you take into a certain trade as a path you tread in life. Historically, people would commonly adopt the trade of their parents or ancestors, meaning that taking a trade would involve ‘treading’ in their footsteps.

Some trade names are pretty self-explanatory. Bricklayer, for example, or window cleaner. Nobody is going to get confused about what these roles mean and where the word comes from. But you might have found yourself wondering where some trade names have their roots.

Let’s look at a few examples of common trades, and how they got their weird and wonderful names. 

 

Carpenter

Nothing to do with carpets (obviously), carpenters get their name from the Latin word ‘carpentum’ and the slightly fancy French word ‘carpentier’. Both these words mean someone who works with wood. 

Once upon a time, it referred to someone who made wooden carriages specifically, although these days it can mean pretty much any wooden structure from cabinets to floorboards. 

 

Tailor

A common surname in the British Isles (usually spelt Taylor), the word tailor comes from the Latin word ‘taliare’ meaning ‘to cut’. 

A big part of the role of the tailor is cutting fabric, which explains where this profession got its name.

 

Electrician

The word electrician comes from – you guessed it – Latin. Many English words have their origins in Latin – the language of the ancient Roman Empire. 

In the case of electricians, the root word is ‘electricus’, which we think sounds pretty cool and a little like a character from Transformers. 

As for ‘sparky’ – you can work that one out for yourself! 

 

Butcher

Not from Latin this time, but from an old French word ‘bochier’ meaning someone who slaughters a goat. The French brought this word with them after the Norman invasion of Britain in the 11th century. 

Isn’t it strange to think that a word like ‘butcher’, which sounds as English as fish and chips, is actually as French as fried frogs legs?

 

Smith

A good old English surname, Smith is also a word that was associated with many trades and crafts throughout British history. The word ‘smith’ simply means someone who makes something, which is why you had blacksmiths, arrowsmiths, shoesmiths, swordsmiths, goldsmiths and more. 

The word smith dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, it’s generally accepted to come from ‘smitan’ meaning to hit or strike. Anyone that makes things for a living knows it’s impossible to do without causing a ruckus with tools, and it’s almost impossible to think of the word ‘blacksmith’ for example without hearing the sound of tools striking metal. 

 

Baker

The word ‘baker’ is pretty old, dating back from around 8th century Britain. It comes from the old English ‘baecere’ which referred to the heat-drying process such as that needed to make bread. 

Baker is now a common surname in the English-speaking world, although it’s actually most common in Australia these days. 

 

Plumber 

The word ‘plumber’ is an odd one, and the pronunciation is known to catch out non-native English speakers. But where does it come from?

If you‘re a plumber yourself, you might already know this. The root of the word plumber was brought to Europe by the Romans, who basically invented modern plumbing as we know it. Their revolutionary pipes brought convenience and sanitation to ancient cities, despite the fact that they were made with lead. You don’t have to be a plumber to know we no longer use lead for our pipes, although it wasn’t made illegal in the UK until 1970.

Anyway, the Latin-speaking Romans had a name for lead – ‘plumbum’ which is the origin of the modern word for someone who works with pipes.

 

Why are so many British surnames also the names of trades?

Okay, so maybe you don’t know anyone with ‘John or Jane Electrician’ on their passport. But we bet you’ve met a few Smiths, Bakers, Glovers, Turners, Slaters, Millers or Fletchers in your time. 

Yes, it won’t have escaped your attention that some of the most common surnames in the UK are also historical trades. There are also some less common surnames which have their roots in trades – such as Cheeseman (a cheesemaker), Dexter (cloth dyer) and Sherman (sheep shearer).

But why? Well, consider what a surname actually is. It’s to help identify a person, and historically this was by associating them with their family, profession or community. 

So, surnames were originally descriptive and would include information about the person. You’ll be familiar with surnames like ‘Williamson’, ‘Stevenson’ and ‘Johnson’ – these types of surnames indicate who the bearer’s father was. 

Trade surnames would indicate the job the family did. Remember, a few hundred years ago, a trade would be passed down from generation to generation, so you’d find a whole family of people bearing the name Smith. They didn’t have Yelp to advertise their services, so they had to find a way to let everyone know what trade they were in.

 

And finally…

We hope you’ve enjoyed your lesson on the history of trade names. 

We hope it’s reminded you why you went into the trades in the first place – people will always rely on tradespeople, and a trade profession is one that really stands the test of time.

One thing your ancient predecessors didn’t have access to was trade insurance, which luckily, you do. Protect the business you’ve built today with Rhino Trade Insurance and our comprehensive cover for just about any trade you can think of. 


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