Glynn Moore: Many of our surnames came from our ancestor’s occupations

During the weekend I watched an old film I had not seen before. Destination Tokyo was made during World War II with Cary Grant as the captain of a U.S. submarine sent to gather data on the coast of Japan. I hadn’t intended to get involved but watched it all the way through.

 

One reason was character actor Alan Hale, who played the cook on the sub. No, not Alan Hale Jr., the skipper on another boat, the SS Minnow, which struck land on Gilligan’s Island more than two decades later.

If you put father and son beside each other, it would be difficult to tell the Hales apart, and they even portrayed similar characters. On Destination Tokyo, Hale played was Wainwright, and he offered some comic relief aboard a tense wartime sub.

I started taking notes when Wainwright sat down at a table and opened a thick book. A shipmate asked what he was reading.

“The San Francisco telephone directory,” he replied. “I collect names.”

“What do you do with them?”

“Oh, just meditate, wonder what kind of people go with the names, what the names mean – all that kind of stuff.”

“Aw, names don’t mean nothing,” someone said.

“Oh no? Well, my name is Wainwright. My grandpa used to build wagons, so he was a wainwright; a wainwright is a guy who built wagons. … Some grandpas built houses; their name’s Carpenter. Some grandpas made clothes; that’s Taylor. Some guys’ grandpas built wheels for my grandpa’s wagons; their’s name’s Wheelwright; a wheelwright’s a guy who builds wheels.”

Sure enough, many of us have surnames related to occupations; not our life’s work, perhaps, but maybe someone long ago in our family trees. Just think of all the jobs our grandpas had:

A cooper made barrels. A hooper made the metal bands around a barrel.

Do you think that game-show host and animal lover Bob Barker knew that his name meant leather tanner? I hope not.

A carter was a deliveryman because he hauled cargo in a cart. A wright was a woodworker but later any kind of worker, such as the above-cited wainwright and wheelwright – but also a cartwright.

A smith is a worker who “smites” metal. Whereas a blacksmith forms iron or steel using heat, a whitesmith does his art with cold metal.

He who works a lathe is a turner. One who turns cotton or wool into cloth is not just a weaver,but also a webster. If a carpenter builds a house in Germany, he is a zimmerman.

Another word for a wheelwright is a wheeler. It makes me wonder where Wheeless Road in Augusta got its name.

The name game is different today. Some women don’t adopt their new husbands’ names, or they might prefer to hyphenate. I’ve always wondered what the next step is after Joe Wheeler-Wheelwright marries Jo Carter-Cartwright and they have a child. How far do the hyphens go?

Moreover, some people change their surname to show their heritage or an adopted religion. Others use no surname at all. Right, Cher?

 

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