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Genealogy FAQ - Family Names
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Last Name Meanings - Surnames
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4. Occupational Names
The last class of surnames to develop reflect the occupation or status of the first bearer. These occupational names, derived from the specialty crafts and trades of the medieval period, are fairly self-explanatory. A MILLER was essential for grinding flour from grain, a WAINWRIGHT was a wagon builder, and BISHOP was in the employ of a Bishop. Different surnames often developed from the same occupation based on the language of the country of origin (MÃœLLER, for example, is German for Miller). When researching occupational surnames, the most important point is to remember that most evolved during the Middle Ages, based on the occupations and trades of the time, so some are not what they may seem. A FARMER, for example, was not an agricultural worker, but instead collected taxes.

Examples: ALDERMAN, an official clerk of the court; TAYLOR, one that makes, alters, and repairs garments; CARTER, a maker/driver of carts; OUTLAW, an outlaw or criminal. Others, such as Butcher, Baker, Miller, Carpenter or Smith are obvious examples.

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Despite these basic surname classifications, many surnames of today seem to defy explanation. The majority of these are probably corruptions of the original surnames -- variations that have become disguised almost beyond recognition. Surname spelling and pronunciation has evolved over many centuries, often making it hard for current generations to determine the origin and evolution of their surnames.

Such derivations of family names, resulting from ignorance of spelling, variations in pronunciation, or merely from the preference of the bearer, tend to confound both genealogists and etymologists. On my own research, my family name of HALLAM has been spelt many different ways in parish records and in the early census, where the person visiting the house to take the census, wrote the name as he heard it – such as HALLOM, HALLUM, HALUM.

It is fairly common for different branches of the same family to carry different surnames as the majority of English and American surnames have, in their history, appeared in four to more than a dozen variant spellings. Therefore, when researching the origin of your surname, it is important to work your way back through the generations in order to determine the original family name, as the surname that you carry now may have an entirely different meaning than the surname of your distant ancestor. It is also important to remember that some surnames, though their origins may appear obvious, aren't what they seem. BANKER, for example, is not an occupational surname, instead meaning "dweller on a hillside."

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