So many things of an individual’s life can change not only over their own lifetime, but also over a couple generations. Nothing is truer than the change of terms for certain occupations. You can easily come across an occupation on a census document, social security application, pension record or journal and have no idea what that type of job entails.
An example is the term constable which you can guess refers to a police office. However, so is the term ‘tipstaff’ which also means policeman. It goes back to the 1500s and referred to a law enforcer, a person who used a wooden staff which had a tip that unscrewed so a warrant of arrest could be carried.
Some occupations you might be able to guess at like; ‘brazier’ - a brass craftsman or ‘glazier’ - a glass window maker. However, then there are terms like; ‘ripper’ which refers to a fish seller, or ‘victualer’ who furnishes necessary food and supplies for the military. Who knew?
In fact, it can be quite a challenge to get the right term and know what it means from census and vital records. Many of the clerks and census taker had no idea what the occupation was also, so a word was misspelled or even a different occupation written.
Many family surnames came about due to a person’s occupation. From the Old English occupation of an arrow maker comes the name ‘fletcher’ which is also now a surname. Or a man who sold grocers was termed a ‘spicer’, another surname.
Numerous occupations did not originate in Europe, but were products of necessary work in the New World with the colonial settlers. A person who repaired shoes was termed ‘snobscat’ or a person who used a loom to make fabric was called a ‘webster’.
When you find occupations written in languages other than English, then it becomes a bit confusing. A ‘jurist’ in German was a lawyer and ‘schafer’ was a sheep shepherd. Occupations can vary from place to place. In Scotland a laborer or servant on a farm was known as ‘hynder’. If you saw ‘hlw’ in Scotland for an occupation, that person was a handloom weaver.
Here are a few other occupations that only date back a hundred years or less:
Apiarian - beekeeper
Bluestocking - female writer
Cooper - maker of wooden barrels
Draper - seller of dry goods and cloth
Poulterer - a chicken seller
Slater - a roofer
Wainwright - wagon maker
The following are several other links for finding different occupations and what they mean.