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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, June 14, 2019

When your surname is your destiny

I caught sight of this baker's delivery van as I was on my way to the subway the other day and thought, "Wow, how appropriate is that?" "Baxter" is an occupational name derived from the Anglo-Saxon word bæcestre meaning "a female baker".

In Anglo-Saxon, most masculine agent nouns (nouns denoting someone or something that performs the action of a verb) had an -ere ending, which has evolved into our -er suffix. Feminine agent nouns, on the other hand, had an -estre ending. Thus, 
a woman who sang was a
a woman who sewed was a
I particularly love, and feel we should revive, the word for a female dancer: a
Anglo-Saxon apparently also felt the need for a word meaning "female poisoner or witch":
Most of these have died out, but some have survived as surnames, because they were common occupations, and ones typically filled by women in Anglo-Saxon times. 
Thus we have
Webster (a weaver)
Brewster (a brewer)
Dexter (a dyer)
and the above-mentioned
Baxter (a baker)

In the north of England, though, men started taking over trades like weaving, baking, and tailoring, and the -ster ending started to be used in a gender-neutral way. Thus we see a "person who judges", based on the Anglo-Saxon word "deem"  (overtaken by the French word "judge"), is a
Dempster (a judge)
One -ster word that has, just barely, survived, is 
spinster (originally "a woman who spins") 
but not as a family name for obvious reasons, once it came to mean "an unmarried woman". We won't be sad to see that one go.

Once -ster had become a gender-neutral ending, though, the language still felt the need for a specifically feminine ending, and fortunately the French had brought one with them: -ess, derived from Latin -issa. In our lovely "let's have a language mishmash" way, we just tacked that on and ended up transforming

sangestre into "songstress" and

séamestre into "seamstress" (with its now obsolete variant "sempstress")

By the 16th century all associations of -ster with feminine gender had been lost, paving the way for

gamester, jokester, punster, trickster  
and even words formed from adjectives, as in 
and the more recent  

Although I might qualify as both a spinster and an oldster, I would warn you not to use those words of me in my presence! 

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.