Readers reply: why is the surname Farmer uncommon when there were so many farmers for so long?

<span>Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

Why is the surname Farmer so uncommon when there were large numbers of farmers for so long? Is it because most of them were tenant farmers, and the actual landowners were higher up the social scale with longstanding family names? Gerry Cotter, Morecambe, Lancs

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Surely the answer is in the question. Names (including those based on occupations) are meant to distinguish you from the rest. People called Potter, Fletcher or Cooper were presumably the only (or most well-known) makers of pottery, arrows or barrels in the community. Where everyone farmed to some extent in order to stay alive, there would be no point in referring to someone as (the) farmer. Frank Winter

As a corollary, this also explains the popularity of the surname Smith: in a given village you’d probably only have one, so it works to distinguish, but you almost certainly would have at least one. Callum Ramsey

The name Farmer comes from the Middle English “fermer”, which derives from the same root as fermier in French, meaning a person who collects tithes and taxes on land. Shepherd, Cowman and Ploughman are the type of names attributed to people who worked on larger farms or single-use small enterprises. A general name developed from small farms on which a jack of all trades may have made a living with many different products may have been Croft or, in the case of rented land, Tenant and Granger are names that are descriptive of working the land. Ackerman (ploughman), Bannister (basket maker), Berger (shepherd), Marshal (horseman), Stoddard (horse keeper), and Shearer (shearer of sheep) all refer to specific practical roles in farming, while Bailey, Stewart, Steward and Graves all refer to clerical jobs on farms. A person owning a farm without actually working practically on it would usually be Laird, Lord or Yeoman, meaning free holder. Anna Gregory

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Think of the kind of medieval society where surnames originated. In your village, the Lord, his agent the Reeve, the Smith and the Miller were important people and there was probably only one of each. Most of the rest were farmers of some kind, unless they had a specialised trade such as Butcher or Taylor or Brewer. So it was pointless to call them all Will or Thomas Farmer. Which farmer? The tall one (Long), the red-headed one (Russell), the one who lived on the Hill or by the Lake, Thomas’s son, Will’s son, the inexplicably teetotal one (Drinkwater) and so on. gallerymouse

It’s because the name farmer does not refer to people who farm. It’s an old medieval name for a tax collector. Mike Wood

In the Netherlands, the surname “De Boer” (“the Farmer”) is one of the most common names in the country. This invalidates the premise “Why is the surname Farmer so uncommon”. At least in the Netherlands. Heikki Doeleman

Because in medieval England (which is from where many common English-language surnames originate) very few people were farmers. People who didn’t live in towns were almost all serfs or peasants, so although they would have “farmed” their land, that wasn’t so much their occupation as their entire way of life. The food they produced would have gone exclusively to either feeding their family or as tribute to the tax collector and local feudal lord. The idea of someone doing farming (ie growing food or raising livestock in order to sell it for profit) didn’t really originate until the 18th century, by which time most families had acquired surnames already. (Source: someone smarter than me on Reddit, /u/buried_treasure) CHPala

Before “husband” meant spouse, I think it meant someone who works on the land. Hence the words for each member of a married couple referred to their main occupation: person who weaves or wife, and person who tends (husbands) the land. I think there are a few surnames with “husband” in them. tenduvets

The surname Mather means mower. A person who’s trade was to mow meadows for hay. Farmers also took the name, as many did, of the nearest settlement. For instance John of Airton, eventually becoming plain John Airton. ProfessorScoggins

Farmers were, originally, not people who worked the land. Rather, they were tax collectors who would collect rent on behalf of the landlord from those working in the fields. When surnames were first becoming common there would have been relatively few farmers compared to the number of labourers. politevulture

Farmer is not actually a literal etymology of actual farmers. It’s a warping of the original French word fermeur, a collector of tithes for the king. Alexxe

Yes but. The basic sense of fermier (not fermeur) is “holder of a firm-price lease”, whether the lease is for the exploitation of tax collection or land cultivation. In the agricultural realm, fermier is distinguished from métayer, someone whose lease is paid on the basis of a half-share of the crop. Being a fermier or à métayer is circumstantial, not a matter of skills and experience. Thus a less likely choice for a family name, I would guess. justinbb

Yes, this came up on QI once: it essentially means “tax farmer”. A farmer might be named Ackerman (acre man – a ploughman) or Cotter (related to cottage) or Bond (bondsman, bondage, bound to the land), Mather (mower, as in aftermath, a second crop), or other specific terms. jno50

Yes, “farmer” always had that agricultural sense as one of its meanings, but in medieval times, it was very much a secondary meaning. Simply because very little agricultural land was in the form of fixed-price leases; most of it was organised into manors. I guess there was a transitional stage in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which “yeoman” was the usual term for essentially the same thing. Being a yeoman had a high social status locally, and the term probably fell out of use as being an agricultural owner-manager became more common and ceased to have quite the same cachet it once did. “Farmer” in its modern sense became a common usage at some point in the 16th century. PaniscusTroglodytes

I’ve just read that the etymology of the surname Cole is probably linked to the Latin “cola”, as in agri-cola. It is supposed to mean “farmer”. Roy Cole, O’Fallon, Illinois

It may be because the word “farmer”, which in the Greek original means “earth worker”, geōrgos (γεωργός), was first used as an etymological pun as a nickname for George III (1738-1820) AKA “Farmer” George. Perhaps because the pun was not especially flattering to the king, it lost its mojo, even though it had been around since the Norman conquest. Richard Orlando, Westmount, Quebec

This feels like a good place to recommend Kevin Stroud’s History of English podcast. Whole episodes detailing agricultural vocabulary, and how English surnames arose. Be advised – he goes deep. Each episode is about an hour, and by episode 100, he had just got to Magna Carta. whood

Other comments say Farmer alone is not a very helpful surname when so many people farmed the land, which is true, but there could have been specifics added, which would have created useful surnames. In Danish many non-patronymic surnames come from specific farms (gård or gaard), such as in the case of philosopher Kierkegaard (church farm) or my own, Storgaard (big farm). I’ve never seen equivalent farm surnames in English. hettisa

I seem to be continuing the tradition of naming people after their trade. My contacts list includes Andy Plumber, Andy Caravan, Andy Mover, who fixed the mover on my caravan), Andy Neighbour, Dave House (a builder), John Paver, who paved my yard. I feel that I should know their surnames but … Swanvesta22

Sadly I feel, a word from the middle ages for one who works the land has long fell out of favour. From Middle English erthling (“farmer, ploughman”) ... from Old English ierþling, eorþling (“farmer, husbandman, ploughman”) .... from eorþe (“ground; dirt; planet Earth”). Anglo-saxon also gives us Webbestre (weaver) for Webster, Bæcestre (female form of baker) for Baxter. And the all-purpose Wyrhta, meaning labourer or worker, which became Wright. All lifted from The Word Hoard by Hana Videen. confused23

It’s known that farming families sometimes took their surname from the name of the farm, field or other topographic feature in the immediate hinterland around their home. So John at New Hall farm might become John Newhall. Farmland has a reputation for having some really ancient obscure names for individual fields, meadows, ponds and woodland and I have no doubt that some of these got used as surnames by farmers when they had to adopt one. Pesmog

Here in Australia, where we grow sugar, I know of one case where somebody with the surname “Farmer” had to be talked out of naming their son “Kane”. Urknall