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I recall reading once that the "smith" in some surnames stood for something like "the one who works with". For example: Coppersmith, the one who works with copper or deals with copper; Wordsmith has to with an individual that make a living by dealings with words (a poet?).

Is there any evidence on the validity of this "explanation"? When and how did surnames ending with "smith" originate?

Do you know of a good source (article, textbook, manuscript, papyrus) on the origin of some of the more common surnames in the English speaking world?

For instance, I believe that the suffix -son was intended to express the son of "name preceding son": for instance, Johnson (son of John), Nicholson (son of Nicholas?), etc.

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    Smith - Old English smið "blacksmith, armorer, one who works in metal" (jewelers as well as blacksmiths), more broadly, "handicraftsman, practitioner of skilled manual arts" (also including carpenters), from Proto-Germanic *smithaz "skilled worker"........Attested as a surname at least since c.975. etymonline.com/word/smith – user121863 Sep 13 '18 at 18:15
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    Your questions seem interesting; however, I think that to get reasonably scoped answers, you should edit this post so that it is only about about -smith names. You can make a separate post for the question about -son names if needed. – herisson Sep 14 '18 at 6:32
  • I would go so far as to think that 'Smith' is the root, and the kinds of things worked on are the prefixes (not 'smith' being the suffix). This is similar to 'Wright': Cartwright, Woodright, Wainwright, (with or without the 'w') etc etc – Mitch Sep 17 '18 at 16:43
  • The origin for most -smiths is as OP suggests, but there are some exceptions: in Goodesmith, Goodsmith, and Hudsmith, the -smith comes from 'ME maugh, mough which may be from ON mágr ‘brother-, father- or son-in-law’, OE māga ‘relative, son’, OE māge ‘female relative’, or OE magu ‘child, son, servant’. ' And it is uncertain whether the -smith in Athersmith ultimately comes from OE smiþþe, 'smithy', or from OE smēðe, 'free from roughness, not harsh, polished; soft; suave; agreeable' (here). – linguisticturn Sep 17 '18 at 18:14
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The word "smith" once had a wider meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary has the following definition:

A person who works skilfully with iron or other metals, making items by forging and hammering; esp. a blacksmith, a farrier. Also in figurative context. Formerly also occasionally: †a skilled worker in other arts or crafts (obsolete).

You can see this in action in a number of Old English texts. Joseph, husband of Mary is described as a smith, which according to the OED "translates [as] classical Latin faber [meaning] craftsman":

Nonne hic est fabri filius: ahne ðis is smiðes uel wyrihta sunu?
Matthew 13:55, Lindisfarne Gospels

Similarly Beowulf talks about a "weapon smith":

Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið.

There's also this Late Old English quote:

He is smið, & his heorð is seo gedrefodnysse
Early English homilies

(My translation: "He [the devil] is a smith and his furnace is the tribulation".)


The word "smith" was also used as the second word in compounds.

In this example, "larsmiðas" means "teacher" or "counsellor", but its literal translation is something like "lore-smith":

Þa se æðeling fand..þurh larsmiðas..on godes bocum hwær ahangen wæs..on rode treo rodora waldend.
Elene

Here's an example of "laughter-smith":

Wæron hleahtorsmiðum handa belocene.
Exodus

This is translated by one source as "laughter-makers":

The hands of the (Egyptian scornful) laughter-makers were restrained (from plaudits).

Yet another relevant example from Old English is the following (with "wigsmiðas" meaning "idol-makers"):

Þa wæron deofulgild deorce hæþenra golde and seolfre, þa her geara menn worhtan wigsmiðas wræste mid folmum.
The Paris Psalter

This translates as:

Then there were faithless devilish idols of the heathen, gold and silver, which here long ago people, idol-makers, made long-lasting with (their) hands.


See also: Wonder-Smiths and Others: smið Compounds in Old English Poetry—With an Excursus on hleahtor (already linked above but worth another mention.)

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Yes, that explanation is correct—for most of them.

Examples of scholarly referencess on the subject include 1. A Dictionary of English Surnames and 2. The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.

As the OP suggests, most last names that end in -smith are 'occupational last names', where the smith typically means, roughly, 'maker of'. But there are some exceptions: Goodesmith/Goodsmith, Hudsmith, and Athersmith. Silversmith is a different kind of exception; see below.

In Goodesmith/Goodsmith and Hudsmith, the root is not really smith, but rather

ME maugh, mough which may be from ON mágr ‘brother-, father- or son-in-law’, OE māga ‘relative, son’, OE māge ‘female relative’, or OE magu ‘child, son, servant’.

See e.g. the entry for Hudsmith here.

In Athersmith, the -smith comes from one of two sources. First, it may denote 'someone who lived, and presumably worked, at a smithy (Old English smiþþe)'. The second possibility is that it comes from OE smēðe ('free from roughness, not harsh, polished; soft; suave; agreeable'; see here), in which case it is

a locative name possibly also from Middle English at ther smethe ‘dweller at the smooth, level place’'

See here.

In either case, unlike most other -smiths, Athersmith does not come from 'a maker of something', but it rather has to do with where the person lived.

Silversmith

At the end of the day, this is an 'occupational' surname just like Goldsmith and other -smith occupational surnames I list below. However, the historical origin of Silversmith is very different from that of these other surnames.

Shockingly enough, unlike the surnames listed below, Silversmith seems to not have been used as a surname in pre-modern British isles. Instead, it seems to come from America, as a 'part-translation of German and Ashkenazic Jewish Silberstein'. I base this claim on this entry from Dictionary of American Family Names, and on the fact that neither the two scholarly references above nor the 1860 Patronymica Britannica, a dictionary of the family names of the United Kingdom have an entry for Silversmith (see here). This despite the fact that all three of these references do have Goldsmith, which is indeed an occupational surname with a long history of presence in England, just as you'd expect.

A list of -smith surnames in A Dictionary of English Surnames

Here are all -smiths that have entries in A Dictionary of English Surnames. The abbreviation 'OE' means 'Old English'; 'ME', 'Middle English'; and 'ON', 'Old Norse'.

Arrowsmith, Arsmith, Harrismith, Harrowsmith

: Roger le Aruesmuth 1278 AssSt; William le Arwesmyth 1324 FFEss; Richard Arsmith Eliz Bardsley. OE arwe ‘arrow’ and smith. A smith who makes arrows, especially iron arrow-heads (1278 MED). Harrismith and Harrowsmith are rare but exist side by side with Arrowsmith in Yorks and Lancs.

Athersmith

: John atter Smythe (1330 PN D 386) lived at the smithy (OE smiþþe) and was presumably a blacksmith. The surname might also derive from ME at ther smethe ‘dweller at the smooth, level place’ (OE smēðe). cf. William del Smethe 1327 SRSf.

Brownsmith

: Thomas le Brounesmyth 1296 Wak (Y); William Brounsmyth 1327 SRSo. OE brūn and smið ‘brown smith’, ‘a worker in copper and brass’.

Coppersmith

: Richard Copersmid 1212–23 Bart (Lo); Robert copersmith eHy 3 ib.; John le copersmyth 1305 LoCt. ‘Maker of copper utensils’ (1327 MED). cf. Hugo Coperman 1202 P (We), Stephen le Coperbeter 1286 LLB A.

Goldsmith, Gouldsmith

: Roger Goldsmiz 1250 MESO (Nf); Thomas Goldsmith 1255 Ass (Ess); John le Goldesmethe 1309 LLB D. OE goldsmið ‘goldsmith’.

Goodesmith, Goodsmith

: John Godesmaghe 1351 FrY; Margaret Goodsmyth 1525 SRSx. ‘Relative of Gode’, cf. HUDSMITH.

Greensmith

: Thomas Grenesmyth 1523 RochW. ‘Coppersmith.’

Harrismith

: v. ARROWSMITH

Harrowsmith

: v. ARROWSMITH

Hudsmith

: Thomas Huddemogh 1332 SRLa; William Hudmagh 1379 PTY; Thomas Huddesmawth 1464 FeuDu; Cuthbert Hodgemaght, Hodgemaughthe 1545–6 NorwW (Nf); Ralph Hudsmyth 1582 PrGR. ‘Hudd’s brother-in-law.’ cf. Richard Gepmouthe and v. WATMOUGH.

Locksmith

: Walter, Roger le Loksmyth’ 1255 Ass (Ess), 1293 Pinchbeck (Sf); John Loc Smyth 1279 AssNb; Robert Locsmyth 1279 RH (Hu). OE loc ‘lock’ and smið, ‘locksmith’. cf. William Locwricht 13th AD iv (Lo).

Naesmith

: v. NAYSMITH

Naismith

: v. NAYSMITH

Naysmith, Naismith, Naesmith, Nasmyth

: Roger Knifsmith 1246–89 Bart (Lo); Adam Knyfsmith 1285 AssLa; Saman le Knyfsmyth 1310 LLB D; William Knysmyt 1326 AssSt; Robert Knysmithe 1594 Bardsley; John Naysmith n.d. ib. OE cnīf ‘knife’ and smið ‘smith’, a cutler.

Platsmith

: John Platesmyth 1379 PTY. ‘A maker of plate armour’, ME plate, OE smiþ.

Sersmith

: v. SHEARSMITH

Shearsmith, Sersmith

: Walter Scheresmythe 1325 ParlWrits (Gl); Geoffrey Sheresmyth 1391 FrY. ‘A maker of shears, scissors’, OE scēarra and smið.

Shoesmith, Shoosmith

: William Le Shosmith, Sosmyth 1288 MESO, 1296 SRSx. OE scōh, smið ‘shoeingsmith’, maker of horseshoes.

Shucksmith

: v. SUCKSMITH

Smith, Smithe, Smyth, Smythe, Smye

: (i) Ecceard Smið c975 OEByn (Du); Ælfword þe Smith c1100 ib. (So); William le Smyth 1275 AssSo; Julian’ le Smithes 1279 RH (O); John Smye 1524 SRSf. OE smið ‘smith, blacksmith, farrier’. Early examples are common in the Latin form FABER. (ii) William atte Smithe, Thomas de la Smythe 1313 AD i (Sx); Robert atte Smyth 1332 SRSx. ‘Worker at the smithy’, OE smiþþe.

Sucksmith, Shucksmith

: ‘A maker of plough-shares’, OFr soc, OE smiþ.

Weldsmith

: v. WILDSMITH

Whilesmith

: v. WILDSMITH

Whitesmith

: Richard, William le Wytesmith 1260 Cl (O), 1279 RH (C); John le Wytesmyt, le Whitesmyth 1313, 1332 SRWa. OE hwīt and smið ‘white-smith’, a tin-smith (1302 NED).

Wildsmith, Wilesmith, Weldsmith, Whilesmith

: Euota Welsmyth’ 1319 SR (Ess); Ivo le Welsmyth 1327 SR (Ess); Anne Wilesmith 1787 Bardsley. This surname has been variously explained as a corruption of weld-smith, a forger in iron, weald-smith, and the smith in the wild, none of which is satisfactory, nor is Bardsley’s association of the name with wool. Welsmyth is from OE *hwēol-smið ‘wheelsmith’, a maker of wheels, especially the iron parts. cf. WHEELWRIGHT. The vowel was raised to [i] (Wheelsmith), then shortened to Willsmith, which, with an intrusive d, became Wildsmith. ME W(h)īlsmith developed normally to W(h)ilesmith. cf. Whygler for Wheeler, Whilwright for Wheelwright, and the development of weald to wild.

There is no entry for Wordsmith in any of the four dictionaries mentioned above. However, I only have access to the American one through google books, and so it is possible that it has an entry for it after all, but that we just can't see it.

On the related topic of surnames that begin with Smith- (other than Smith, which I already included above):

Smitham

: Robert de Smetham 1275 RH (D); Thomas Smitham 1642 PrD. From Smytham in Little Torrington (D).

Smither, Smithers

: John Smythiere 1379 AssWa. ‘Smith, hammerman.’ cf. ‘The Jorneymen…of all oþer Craftes…except hakmen and smythers wurche in hur own houses and nott in hur masters housz’ (1435 NED).

Smitherman, Smythyman

: Robert Smythyman 1309 Cl (Y). ‘Smithy man’, worker at the smithy.

Smithies, Smithyes, Smythyes

: John del Smythy 1332 SRLa, 1385 ShefA; John Smythes, Smythies 1568,1586 FrY; Thomas Smiddies 1629 ib. ‘Worker at the smithy’, ME smythy.

Smithson, Smythson, Smisson

: Reginald le Smythessone 1296 SRSx; Henry le Smithson 1324 Wak (Y); Peter Smitson 1327 SRY. ‘Son of the smith.’

Smithwhite, Smorthwaite, Smorflt, Smurtbwaite, Smurfit, Smallthwaite

: Henry de Smetwayt 1285 AssLa; Thomas de Smythuait 1327 SRY; Matilda Smarthwate 1489 GildY; Robert Smerwhaitt 1518 ib.; Thomas Smirthwaite 1577 FrY; Thomas Smorthwait 1627 ib.; Matthew Smurwhaite 1657 ib.; Edward Smurfett son of Matthew Smurfett 1713 ib. In Cumberland there is a Smaithwaite in Keswick and another in Lamplugh, Smathwaitis c1280, Smerthwayte 1530, Smethwayte 1552 (PN Cu 314, 407), whilst in Guiseley (Y) we have Smerthwayt 1323 Calv, ‘small clearing’ (ON smár). In Cumberland, too, we find two Smallthwaites, neither recorded before 1611, which may be identical in origin, with late substitution of English small for Scandinavian smár. The first two examples above may contain OE smēðe ‘smooth’.

Smithwick

: Adam de Smithewyk 1327 SRSx; Roger de Smythewyk 1332 SRSx. From Smethwick (Ches), or from a lost Smithwick in Southover (Sussex), last recorded c1608 (PN Sx 323).

Smithyman

: v. SMITHERMAN

On the general topic of how these things are determined, read the introduction (and the prefaces) of the Dictionary. Here is the very beginning of the introduction:

The purpose of a Dictionary of Surnames is to explain the meaning of names, not to treat of genealogy and family history. The fact that Robert le Turnur lived in Staffordshire in 1199 and that there was a William de Kouintre in London in 1230 does not mean that they were the ancestors of all or any of the modern Turners or Coventrys. To establish this, a fully documented pedigree would be required and very few families can carry back their history so far. Throughout the Middle Ages surnames were constantly changing. William Tyndale was known as Huchyns when living in Gloucestershire. Oliver Cromwell was a Williams and David Livingstone was a McLeay. Even today families change their names. Blackden has become Blacktin, Hogg has been changed to Hodd and Livemore has superseded Livermore—all within living memory.

The modern form of many of our surnames is comparatively recent, often preserving a phonetic spelling found in a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century parish register. When some of the Sussex Bourers migrated to Kent in the seventeenth century they adopted the form Bowra. Pharaoh is a reconstructed spelling of Faro, originally Farrer, found also as Farrey, Farrah and Farrow in the seventeenth century. The Suffolk Deadman is a corruption of Debenham and Tudman of Tuddenham. Each surname has its pedigree which must be traced before the meaning can be discovered, and even then the true origin cannot be decided unless the family pedigree can be carried back far enough to fix definitely the original medieval form. A modern White may owe his name to an ancestor bearing the Anglo-Saxon name of Hwīta, or to one nicknamed ‘the fair’, or to an original home in the bend of a river. The original Howard may have been a ewe-herd or a hayward, or he may have borne either the French name Huard or the Old German name Howard. The modern forms often conceal rather than reveal information.

The English language lacks terms corresponding to the French sobriquet and nom de famille. Today, surname means an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name and it is used in this sense in this book. Only very occasionally can early medieval surnames be proved to be hereditary, and any attempt to distinguish them would end in inaccuracy and confusion.

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    @Mitch No, the full version lacks Silversmith also. – linguisticturn Sep 17 '18 at 16:48
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    @Mitch Interestingly, in the entry for Silver, it reads, ": (i) Lucas, John Siluer 1205–13 Seals (L), 1301 SRY. OE silfor ‘silver’, metonymic for a silversmith. cf. Robert Silverhewer 1212 Cur (Y), William Sylvereour 1417 FrY. (ii) Thomas atte Selure 1327 SRWo; Thomas of the silvere 1332 ib. ‘Dweller by the silvery stream’, OE * seolfre, * sylfre, as at Silver Beck (Cumb) or Silver (Devon). v. MELS. – linguisticturn Sep 17 '18 at 16:49
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    @Mitch I don't know why Silversmith is not included. It's a good question. Nevertheless, what is included seems to be supported by solid historical and linguistic analysis. Perhaps, contrary to what one might expect, Silversmith turns out to be surprisingly difficult to definitively trace all the way back to the Middle Ages? I do not know. – linguisticturn Sep 17 '18 at 16:50
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    @Mitch The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland doesn't have Silversmith, either. – linguisticturn Sep 17 '18 at 17:32
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    @Mitch On the other hand, both dictionaries include Goldsmith, which is indeed an occupational surname, just as you'd expect. Very strange! – linguisticturn Sep 17 '18 at 17:51

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