Joseph Mallord William Turner 061He’s an occupational surname with an artistic, swashbuckling story.

Thanks to Kate for suggesting Turner as our Baby Name of the Day.

Turner is a super-common surname,worn by countless people over the years.  Notable bearers include:

  • Joseph Turner was an English landscape artist active in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  That’s his work to the right.
  • Several decades before the Civil War, Nat Turner led a bloody rebellion of slaves that was suppressed with equal brutality.
  • Some years following the Civil War, the politically connected Joe Turney – his brother would become governor of Tennessee – famously took advantage of the state’s convict lease program to make a profit by hiring out chain-gangs of African-American prisoners.  He was immortalized as Joe Turner in an early blues song, the inspiration for August Wilson’s play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
  • Media mogul Ted Turner has lent his surname to several networks.  He’s the ‘t’ in TBS, TNT, and TCM.
  • Music gives us Ike and Tina Turner, plus 1970s supergroup Bachman Turner Overdrive, and more recently, country music star Josh Turner.
  • 1989 Tom Hanks comedy Turner & Hooch was a buddy film starring Hanks as a cop who finds himself partnered with a pooch called Hooch.
  • Several actors have answered to the surname, including 1980s star Kathleen Turner.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean features Will Turner prominently.  He’s played by Orlando Bloom in the first three installments, and the story of his rescue and parentage drives much of the plot.

Add in plenty of politicians, athletes, a few more actors and musicians, and it is tough to make a complete list.

But what does the surname mean?

There are several possibilities:

  • The most obvious is that a Turner made objects out of wood by turning them on a lathe.  (Or maybe metal, as lathes are used in metalworking, too.)  In Latin, tornus was the word for lathe.  It was whispered down the alley into tornier in Old French and torner in Norman French.
  • It could also be a nickname for a fast runner, from the Middle English turnen.
  • Another explanation comes from the French tornei – an official in charge of a tournament.
  • In German, turn means tower, so someone who guarded a tower or lived near a tower could be a Turner.
  • Place names Turno and Tarnow – both found in eastern Europe – could also result in the surname.

On a more fanciful note, in German a male gymnast is called ein Turner; his female counterpart is eine Turnerin.

Various Turners have lent their name to all sort of places and an art prize, a medical syndrome and several ships of the US Navy.

Boys have received the name over the years, probably signalling a family surname migrating to the first spot.  He ranked in the US Top 1000 many years from 1880 into the 1930s.

But since the 1990s, he’s been catching on with a wider audience.  It’s no surprise – the US Top 100 currently includes ends with -er names like Carter, Hunter, Tyler, Parker, Cooper, with choices like Sawyer, Tanner, and Tucker not far behind.  Turner fits right in, without being nearly as popular.

There’s also the most subtle virtue vibe to Turner – to turn can also mean to change, as in The Byrd’s chart-topping 1965 folk song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Overall, if you’re a fan of occupational surname names but want something underused – or if this one is on your family tree – then Turner is definitely one to consider.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. Hey, I just suggested this name to a friend of mine who’s considering Tanner but dislikes the popularity. I dunno if it will stay underused for long though, I have a family member with a newborn Turner and I swear it’s popping up all over.