The Grammarphobia Blog

A slave named Smith

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations?

A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US (according to the 2010 census) as well as in the UK. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,”  “Weaver,” and so on?

Well, the word “smith” has been used in the occupational sense since Anglo-Saxon days, far longer than “cooper” (circa 1415), “potter” (c.1200), and “weaver” (1362) have been used in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several Old English citations for the word “smith,” including this one from the epic poem Beowulf, which scholars say may have been written as early as the 700s:

“Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið” (“As it was made for him by a weapon smith in days of old”).

In addition to being old, “smith” has referred to a wider variety of jobs than those other terms.

When it showed up in Old English, the OED says, a “smith” was someone who worked “in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman.” It was also used in compounds like “coopersmith,” “goldsmith,” “gunsmith,” “locksmith,” and “silversmith.”

“Smith” may have been used as a personal “byname” before any of those other occupational words even showed up in English. (Bynames or nicknames, used to identify individuals and to distinguish one John or Alfred from another, were the precursors of the inherited family names that developed after the Norman Conquest.)

A document from the late 900s granting freedom to a slave named “Ecceard smith” may be the earliest example of such a byname.

A slave? Yes, there was slavery in medieval Britain.

In Cartularium Saxonicum (Vol. 3, 1887), a collection of charters relating to Anglo-Saxon history, the British historian Walter de Gray Birch includes a section on manumissions, documents granting formal release from slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from a manumission that the author dates from the late 10th century:

“Geatfleda geaf freols for Godes lufa & for heora sæpla,  þæt is Ecceard smið, & Ælstan  & his wíf & eall heora of sprinc boren & unboren. & Arcil, & Cole, & Ecferð,  Aldhunes dohter, & ealle þa men þe heo nam heora heafod for hyra mete on þam yflum dagum.”

(“For the love of God and for the need of her soul, Geatfleda has granted freedom to Ecceard smith, and AElfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter, and all those people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days [and all those people she bought in the evil days].”)

In transcribing the Old English above, we’ve replaced the Anglo-Saxon symbol for “and” (it looks like a 7) with an ampersand, and modified some of the punctuation to make the Old English more readable.

Some scholars have translated the Old English “Ecceard smið” as “Ecceard smith,” treating “smith” as a byname, while others have translated it as “Ecceard the smith,” treating “smith” as an appositive that refers to Ecceard by his occupation.

We lean toward considering “smith” a nickname or byname here. As we noted, such names weren’t generally passed on from generation to generation until well into the Middle Ages.

Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, authors of A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed., 1991), note that surnames were constantly changing in the Middle Ages.

“Today, surnames mean an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name,” the authors write.

In The Birth of the West (2014), Paul Collins provides additional details about the freeing of the slaves mentioned above, noting that a great famine in 975 forced some Anglo-Saxons to sell themselves into slavery to keep from dying of hunger.

“Geatfleda, a wealthy woman in Durham, heard that a group of people with children had sold themselves into slavery to survive,” Collins writes. “She then bought them and granted them freedom when the famine had ended.”

In The Old English Manor: A Study in English Economic History (1892), the historian Charles McLean Andrews says that “in cases of great poverty and distress it was not uncommon for freemen to sell themselves into slavery.”

“Frequently it might happen that violence or fraud would force a freeman into slavery, an enforcement, which, while not legally recognized, would become practically a fact, and of legal importance in relation to the posterity of the unfortunate freeman, for of course all children of slaves remained slaves,” Andrews writes.

We could speculate more about the popularity of the name “Smith,” but it would be mere conjecture.

As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990), a lot of medieval genealogy is guesswork:

“It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

You may also be interested in a post we wrote about colors used as surnames, as in “Mr. Gray” and “Ms. White.”

We’ll end with these anonymous lines that we came across in our readings for this post:

“From whence came Smith, all be he Knight or squire
But from the Smith, that forgeth at the fire?”

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