Smith, Wright, and other hard-working names

Published 5:12 pm Friday, June 2, 2023

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Each and every person is given a name when they’re born. If you don’t have anything else, you at least have a name that you can call your own.

I’m always fascinated by the sheer variety of names there are all around the world. Some names are common across different languages and countries, while others are unique to their original locations. Some can be difficult to pronounce or spell, while others are simple and easy to remember.

I’m quite fond of my own name! But I’ve been called the wrong name plenty of times over the years too. These days I’ve taken to introducing myself as “Holly, like Christmas” just so I don’t get confused as Molly or Polly or anything else similar. (Not that I mind a mistake or two!) I don’t run into too many other Hollys around, but it is kind of nice sometimes to meet someone you share a name with.

My last name, Taylor, is quite a common one. I think I read years ago that it’s the 12th most common one in the United States, though I’m not sure if that’s still true anymore (or if it ever was). What is true, however, is that there are definitely a lot of Taylors out there in the world. And I’m not related to them all!

Names often also have a lot of meaning behind them. People named in honor of or in memory of family or friends even have an extra layer of sentimental meaning to their names, like a memory or a legacy to carry on. But I’ve always been fascinated with the other meanings behind names, like what sort of definition would go with them if you looked them up in a dictionary.

Taylor, for example, apparently has its origins with the word “tailor.” That is, a person who makes clothes fit correctly. You’d take an ill-fitting suit to a tailor to get it stitched up better, for example. It’s where the phrase “tailor-made” originates too, as something that is altered to fit into a specific situation.

This “Taylor,” however, does not live up to her namesake. I’ve never been good with a needle and thread, so you probably shouldn’t let me tailor my clothes or anyone else’s!

Taylor isn’t the only job-related last name out there. Recently, the Merriam-Webster dictionary website complied a (non-comprehensive) list of last names that started as jobs. Here are a few interesting ones from the list:

Wright: The word itself is defined as “a worker skilled in the manufacture especially of wooden objects” and it originates from Old English. You’re probably familiar with the word as a compound, such as shipwright, playwright, and cartwright. (Though, Merriam-Webster notes that playwrights aren’t making things out of wood, but they are writing plays to be performed on a wooden stage.)

Some famous Wrights include the Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur) who made the first successful airplane flight right here in North Carolina.

Smith: This name originates from a job where the person works with metals. That can be a blacksmith who works with iron or a tinsmith who works with tin. Like wright, this one also came from Old English.

You don’t see a lot of blacksmiths and tinsmiths around these days, but there are plenty of Smiths. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s the most common surname in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Some famous Smiths include Dame Maggie Smith (acclaimed British actress) and Will Smith (occasionally known in his younger days simply as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).

Fletcher: Unlike names with English origins that are probably easier to guess what the job was, Fletcher comes from an Anglo-French word that means “arrow.” So a fletcher, of course, is someone who makes arrows. That was probably quite a useful job back in the day.

I thought this was an interesting name to include on the list because personally I’ve met a few people over the years with Fletcher as a first name instead of as a surname. But obviously, there are plenty of last name Fletchers out there too!

A fictional famous Fletcher you might be familiar with is Jessica Fletcher, the main character from “Murder, She Wrote.” It’s been a very long time since I watched any episodes of the series, but now I’m curious if any of the murders she solved included an arrow as the murder weapon.

Sexton: This one describes the caretaker of a church or graveyard. Traditionally, the job duties included things like ringing the bells or digging graves for burial. Seems kind of like it might be a pretty spooky job, depending on the cemetery.

Not many famous Sextons come to mind, but Merriam-Webster’s article pointed out that American poet Anne Sexton liked to use graveyard imagery in a lot of her poems, so that seems appropriate.

Webster: Another Old English word, this one was a former term for a weaver. Think about a spider weaving its web, right? Spiders, of course, don’t have names at all (except for the title character from “Charlotte’s Web”), but there are plenty of people out there with Webster as a surname.

In fact, you might even come to associate “Webster” with a different sort of job these days, thanks to Noah Webster, who published the first American dictionary in 1806. (He followed up that accomplishment in 1828 with an even bigger dictionary with over 70,000 entries). In later years, he teamed up with the Merriam brothers to continue their word work together. And that became the Merriam-Webster dictionary we still know today.

Names are pretty neat, aren’t they?

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.