What's in a name? A lot, actually.
What to make of all these fine old nouns, living on as surnames when their original function has disappeared?
Anu Garg, the wordsmith of the "A Word A Day" e-mail that many of us word-lovers receive, did a series a few weeks ago on words signifying old professions. Ostiary was one – essentially a doorkeeper, generally the keeper of a church door. But imagine in a real estate ad: "Luxury building with 24-hour ostiary." Makes you want to run to check it out, doesn't it?
I was struck, though, by a couple of these occupational terms and the way they live on in surnames. And often such names don't mean quite what one would expect.
Bowyer and napier were two Mr. Garg mentioned.
A bowyer is – was? – one who makes bows for archery. One who makes bows for stringed instruments is a bowmaker (duh), or a little more elegantly, an archetier – a term borrowed from French.
Today Bowyer is an uncommon name derived from a line of work that in its day must have been fairly common.
Napier is a variation on naperer, the person having charge of the royal table linen.
That would seem to be a fairly specialized profession, but as a surname, Napier is common enough today that my online references list various famous Napiers without defining napier as a common noun at all.
This might be an example of what I think of as the Smith paradox – Smith is so common as a name not because smiths were so numerous but because they were few enough that the occupation made a distinctive identifier – every village would have a smith, but probably only one.
But not all occupational names are quite what they seem. Take farmer, for instance. A no-brainer, truly: one who farms, Old MacDonald and his confreres. Well, maybe not. This is from ancestry.com about Farmer as a surname:
"The term denoted in the first instance a tax farmer, one who undertook the collection of taxes, revenues, and imposts, paying a fixed (Latin firmus) sum for the proceeds...."
Similarly, my own pedestrian-sounding surname derives not from my forebears' mode of transport but their occupation – walking cloth had to do with working a certain kind of fine clay (fuller's earth) into it for smoothness – Walker being equivalent to the more English name Fuller.
Calender is a more unusual surname, but like these others it derives from an occupation – just not the one you might think.
I wondered whether it might refer to an early incarnation of the appointments secretary ("Have thy girl call my girl, and they can set something up"), but not so.
It turns out that a calender is "a machine that smooths or glazes paper or cloth by pressing it between plates or passing it through rollers." This calender is related to our word cylinder. The person who does this work is called a calenderer, or in times past, a calender.
While we're in the C's: A chandler was originally a maker or seller of candles but eventually the term was applied to those who sold retail supplies generally – particularly for sailing ships.
Connoisseurs of the TV show "Friends" may be vaguely aware of this connection, especially if they remember Joey's remark about his friend Chandler Bing's moniker, "It's not even a name. It kinda sounds like 'chandelier,' but it's not."
Apprentices used to hold candles to light their masters' work. Someone who couldn't hold a candle to someone else was of very lowly status indeed.
What do we make of all these fine old nouns, living on as surnames when their original function has disappeared?
It seems like what they call in architectural circles "adaptive reuse," as when the old school becomes condos, or the train station or the power station becomes an art museum. •
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy .