Episode 118: Trade Names

Like much of western Europe, England experienced a significant growth in population during the two centuries after the Norman Conquest. By the 1300s, the percentage of the English population who lived in urban areas had doubled. As towns and cities grew, jobs became more specialized. The rise of specialized occupations led many workers to adopt their occupation as a surname. In this episode, we’ll explore the job market of the 14th century, and we’ll examine the origin of many common occupational surnames.


34 thoughts on “Episode 118: Trade Names

  1. I have just been listening to this episode and recall a further alternative to the spick and span new. I have always heard the term “brand spanking new” and that has always meant something that is so new that it has not had time to get dirty. This is clearly the same meaning as you were describing.

    Thank you for making this amazing series of podcasts., it’s been a fascinating journey so far.

    • It appears that “brand spanking new” is “brand new” with the word “spanking” added in the middle as an intensifier. According to the OED, “spanking” started to be used as an adjective in the 1600s meaning ‘large or exceptional.’ In the 1800s, “spanking” is first attested with its modern colloquial meaning as ‘very or exceedingly.’ The OED says that the first use of “brand spanking new” was in 1905.

      • I suspect the practice of spanking a newborn baby is part of the origin of the term as well. How much newer can something be? Lol

  2. Fantastic episode (which could be said of all 118 episodes). I’ve always thought my last name was just a misspelling of gardener but I recently came across a Wikipedia article saying: “it is derived from the Saxon words gar, meaning “a weapon”, and dyn meaning “sound or alarm”, combined with the termination er gives the name “Gair-den-er”, which means “a warrior”, “one who bears arms”.”
    Do you think this is plausible or is Wikipedia just being Wikipedia?

    • My gut instinct is that “Gordineer” is a variation of either “gardener” (which produced the surname “Gardner”) or “garner” (which was a person who worked at a granary or grain storehouse and produced the surname “Garner”). The former seems more likely.

      “Gar” did indeed mean a spear in Old English. It survives as part of the word “garlic” which is literally a ‘gar-leek’ and meant a spear-shaped leek or vegetable. However, I can’t find any use of “Gairdener” in Old English. I should note that the first line of Beowulf used the term “gardene” which literally meant “spear-Danes” and was used to mean Danish warriors. However, I think that term was simply a poetic expression and wasn’t a common term for a warrior. It is possible that the use of that term is so well-known to Beowulf scholars that it influenced the Wikipedia entry you read. That’s just my guess.

  3. This episode reminded me of a book and a movie that I’ve watched/seen recently. Neither one of them has to do with the English language but rather Medieval vocations and markets. The book is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Some people consider it his masterpiece, so you might have heard of it before I had, being interested in Medieval things and all, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. The main plot element running through most of the book is the building of a cathedral in a small English town, so a couple of the main characters are masons/architects/builders, and one becomes a successful wool merchant, and we also see a lot about day-to-day monastic life. I don’t know how true to 12th-century life it is, but reading it gave me a pretty good sense of what life in a Medieval English town was like, to the extent that it’s accurate.

    The movie is The Physician, which is based on a novel by Noah Gordon. The part of this episode that reminded me of the movie was the thing about surgeons being barbers originally. The title character becomes apprenticed to a roaming barber/surgeon, who does a lot of tooth-pulling, amputating, and giving of concoctions of dubious efficacy.

    • I read Pillars of the Earth about 20 years ago and agree that it is Follett’s best book, a real piece of literature (unlike most of his books, which are spy-vs-spy intrigue types and vary from very good to awful). Pillars of the Earth was made into a movie some years ago. It had a very good cast and was pretty good, though it had an utterly stupid ending. Anyway, Pillars took place mostly during the Anarchy, which Kevin covered about 40 episodes ago. A sequel to Pillars was released about ten years ago and takes place in the mid-14th century (think The Plague); it was pretty good. A few days ago I picked up a second sequel, which takes place during the reigns of Bloody Mary and Elizabeth and has at its heart religious antipathy.

      • Yeah, that’s right, it did take place mostly during the Anarchy of King Stephen. In fact, the succession of the throne becomes a fairly important plot/character point later on in the novel. King Henry II and Saint Thomas Becket also enter the novel later on. (The novel covers a wide time span.) Very interesting all around. I was thinking about picking up both of its sequels, but man, Pillars of the Earth was such an emotional roller coaster that I think I need a break with some lighter reading for a while.

  4. I was expecting, in the segment that introduced “Letting the cat out of the bag” that the next phrase was going to be: “Left holding the bag.”

    • “Left holding the bag” may indeed be related to “Let the cat out of the bag.” Both phrases are first attested in the mid-1700s in English. As I noted, most scholars are confident that “Let the cat out of the bag” goes back to the Middle Ages given the meaning of the phrase and its similarity to other phrases in other European languages. “Left holding the bag” didn’t come up in any of my research, but I suspect that it has the same (or a similar) origin.

  5. Why didn’t you tell your listeners in these Names episodes that in the US (and perhaps Canada) we don’t ever say “surname” but always “last name”?

    There seems to be a tendancy for some to think that British English is preferable and superior than American or other Englishes. The language just evolved differently in the US and I have no intention of changing my belobed American vernacular to conform to some snooty, simple-minded sense of superiority.

    Brilliant episode, though, mate! (Dammit!)

    • Well, I’m an American, and I have used “surname” for as long as I can remember. And since it is my podcast, I tend to use the terms that come naturally to me. I also refer to the trunk of a car as the “boot” because that is what it is called in eastern North Carolina where I grew up – not because that’s what they call it in the UK. I would also argue that a “last name” is not necessarily the same thing as a “surname” as other languages put the various name components in different orders. So “surname” is not as ambiguous as “last name.”

      • I grew up in Ireland and both terms (last name and surname) were in common use.
        I have since lived in Japan and came to learn that in the East Asia the Family Name is given first and then the given Name. Since then, I prefer to use the terms ‘family name’ and ‘given name’ rather than ‘last name’ & ‘first name’.

    • Regionally perhaps is ‘last name’ in Canada. Surname is used in my Canadian experience (Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Alberta). I hear ‘family name’ as much as ‘last name’, to be sure.

      • I am probably wrong though. Funny. In my mind I’m thinking surname. But yes after I ask around and think about, ‘last name’ is more used in Canada.

  6. Another trade name I came across is Pargetter. A pargetter works in fancy plasterwork. Apparently there are about half a dozen traditional Pargetters left in the UK. The surname is still around though.

    • I discussed “baxter” in the supplemental bonus episode at Patreon. It was originally ‘bake-ster’ using the traditional ‘-ster’ ending associated with females.

      • And you discussed “spinster” a female spinner, in a previous episode. Also hamster: “a female sandwich maker”. OK, just kidding about hamster.

  7. Another surname that could just scrape through as an occupational one (just) is Palmer. That is someone who had been on a pilgrimage especially one to Jerusalem where they would be given a palm leaf.

    • I discussed “Palmer” in an earlier episode. (Maybe the episode about Layamon’s Brut, but I’m not 100% sure.) I am sure I will cover it again when I get to the Canterbury Tales.

    • According to my sources, “Pope” is indeed derived from the title of the head of the Catholic Church. It was apparently used as a nickname for certain persons who were very devout or very confident.

  8. You discuss many words that came in from French. Is this because the Normans are still in charge 150 years after 1066? Or are the words coming over directly from France? An earlier episode discussed how French was dying out among the nobility. Or am I mixing up the timeline? Not to jump ahead, but will we see a decline in the influence of French, as the language division between the ruling and common classes ends?

    • The time line of the podcast is basically chronological. Very broadly speaking, in the first 150 years after the conquest (1066-1200), most French loanwords came from the Anglo-Norman dialect of French that was spoken in England (and ultimately derived from the Norman dialect spoken in northern France). During the next 150 years (1200-1350s), the loanwords were more of a mixture of Anglo-Norman and the French spoken around Paris. During the following 150 years (1350s-1500), the loanwords were mostly from ‘standard’ Parisian French. By the end of that period, loanwords directly from Latin were becoming common.

  9. Another wonderful episode!
    Thanks to your research, I now understand:
    • Why Downton Abbey’s head butler Mr. Carson was often seen choosing wines and always the one to pour them at dinners;
    • That Charles Dickens no doubt also found the rhythm of “dead as a doornail” irresistible, as in the first lines of A Christmas Carol — “… Old Marley was dead as a doornail.”

    Regarding surnames with the “smith” suffix, the maiden name of a British friend of mine was Greensmith, which she said originally meant the person who removed the greenish oxide from copper objects.

    Again, many thanks for so many elucidations, present and over the other 117 episodes.

  10. I had always thought that ” let the cat out of the bag” referred to flogging in the British navy. The Cat O’ nine tails’ or “Cat” was kept in a bag to prevent the salt air from drying out the leather, so if the Captain ordered a flogging he was ‘letting the cat out of the bag’. I believe I read it in one of the Jack Aubrey books. There is another expression ‘no room to swing a cat’ which now means a small space or room. It originally referred to crowded deck on a smaller ship. Have you ever heard of this? Love the podcast

    • Hi Gordon. “Let the cat out of the bag” is one of those common phrases that has multiple proposed etymologies. Typically, in a case like that, I try to identify the most generally-accepted etymology, but if there is no dominant version, I will usually note that the etymology is disputed. My recollection is that the nautical explanation of this particular phrase was usually met with skepticism by most of my sources. Here is a link to the phrases.org.uk entry for the phrase which cites both proposed etymologies and prefers the ‘pig in a poke’ version: https://phrases.org.uk/meanings/let-the-cat-out-of-the-bag.html.

  11. Thank you so much for the prompt reply and the additional information. You have been helping me get through the pandemic. I really enjoy the general history as well as the history of the language. I have almost caught up to you and am thinking I will start again at the start when I do.

  12. Absolutely loving your entire series of podcasts!
    On pokes and pockets… When you said that men’s formal clothes tend to have pockets and women tend to carry their stuff in a separate bag, it made me wonder if ‘pack’, as in back-pack, also comes from the same root? Poke, pack. And packet? And pouch? They all sound suspiciously similar. And now I come to think of it, bag sounds pretty close to pack and poke too. Is there a really proto PIE root for all of these?

  13. One of the best episode of HOE for me. Thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot. Anything new always brings me joy! Listening This is my go to sleep regiment for a while now. Thank you Mr. Kevin for this podcast.

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