February 28, 2017

Past Professions

        There are many jobs that have become obsolete over the centuries due to changes in technology or culture.  Some of these professions that are no longer widely practiced are still familiar words, such pharaoh and alchemist, but others have faded from common usage in the language.  Of those obsolete words, some are pretty self-explanatory, such as lamplighter and iceman, while others have become quite odd-sounding and mysterious over time.  It is from among these obsolete names for obsolete occupations that I’ve selected this month’s Words.

ackerman - ploughman (note the connection with acre.  And yes, people still plough, of course, but not with this word.)
alnager - inspector of woolen cloth (from an Old French unit of measurement)
awblaster - crossbowman (I assume related to the large crossbow called an arbalest)
colporteur - peddlar of books or newspapers, especially Bibles and religious tracts (from Middle French comporter “peddlar,” influenced by porter a col “to carry from the neck”)
gaberlunzie - licensed beggar, in Scotland
gong farmer, gongfermour - one who empties out cesspits and privies (from Old English past tense of “to go”)
hayward - hedge warden, an officer in charge of hedgerows, fences, and enclosures
knocker-up - human alarm clock, the one who goes around town in the morning knocking on doors and windows of clients so they can get to their jobs in factories
pantler - servant in charge of bread and the pantry (note that the etymology of pantry is “bread room,” and compare with the servant in charge of the wines and spirits in bottles: butler)
pargeter - plasterer, either simple whitewashing or decorative plasterwork
parnel - priest’s concubine or mistress
postilion - one who drives a carriage by riding one of the horses that pulls it (usually the front left)
puddler - iron worker who produces wrought iron from pig iron (by the process called puddling)
resurrectionist - body snatcher, usually exhuming fresh burials to procure cadavers for dissection
screever - sidewalk artist, who draws pictures on the sidewalk in colored chalk, for donations
whitesmith - tinsmith (as compared with the better-known blacksmith)

        A couple other notes that interest me: 
Many obsolete jobs, thank goodness, are those that were often done by children, such as 
link boy - carries the torch in front of a carriage at night
doffer - exchanges the bobbins, etc, in textile mills
breaker boy - separates impurities from coal
pugger - kneads clay for pottery by treading it
And many of these words that are no longer encountered as professions live on as surnames, such as chandler, fletcher, and fuller, as well as ackerman, hayward, and parnel above.
        I’ve encountered some of these words in literature or history, while others were entirely new to me.  Sure, we no longer need to use them on a daily basis, but it would be a terrible shame to lose them altogether.

[Pictures: woodcut from Ein Schönes Spiel.. von Wilhelm Tell by O. Schweitzer, 1698 (Image from British Museum);
Of Pride, wood block print from A christall glasse of christian reformation by John Day, 1569 (image from Wikimedia Commons);
The two men drew the corpse gently out of its coffin, engraving from The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds, c1843 (Image from Hathi Trust Digital Library);
Link-boys lighting the way, from The Illustrated London News, Volume 10, 1847 (Image from Wellcome Library).]

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