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Smith Surname Origin

The most common of all surnames, and might of itself furnish matter enough for a volume. The word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Smitan, to smite or strike. 'From whence comes Smith, all be he knight or squire, But from the Smith that forgeth at the fire?' Verstegan. Among the Highland clans, the smith ranked third in dignity to the chief, from his skill in fabricating military weapons, and his dexterity in teaching the use of them. In Wales there were three sciences which a villain (tenant) could not teach his son without the consent of his lord, Scholarship, Bardism, and Smithcraft. This was one of the liberal sciences, and the term had a more comprehensive sense than we give to it at this time. The smith must have united in this profession, different branches of knowledge which are now practiced separately, such as raising the ore, converting it into metal, etc. The term was originally applied to artificers in wood as well as metal, in fact, to all mechanical workmen, which accounts for the great frequency of the name. The New York City Directory for 1856 (in which the names of the heads of families only, are given,) contains the names of more than eighteen hundred Smiths, of whom seventy-four are plain James Smiths, and one hundred and seventeen, John Smiths! We see in the papers, that John Smith dies, is married, hanged, drowned, and brutally murdered, daily! John Smith doesn't identify anybody, and is therefore no name at all. This numerous family is the subject of many laughable anecdotes and witty sallies. A wag, on a certain occasion, coming late to the theater, and wishing to get a seat, shouted at the top of his voice, 'Mr. Smith's house is on fire!' The house was thinned five per cent., and the man of humor found a snug seat. In many neighborhoods the name is so frequent that it is necessary to append some soubriquet to identify the person. 'Can you tell me where Mr. Smith lives, mister?' 'Smith--Smith--what Smith? there are a good many of that name in these parts--my name is Smith.' 'Why, I don't know his t'other name, but he's a sour, crabbed sort of fellow, and they call him 'Crab Smith.' ' 'Oh, the deuce! s'pose I'm the man.' But the best piece of humor relating to the name is the following which we take from Lower, which appeared some years since in the newspapers, under the title of 'The Smiths. 'Some very learned disquisitions are just now going on in the journals touching the origin and extraordinary extension of the family of 'the Smiths.' 'Industrious explorers after derivatives and nominal roots, they say, would find in the name of John Smith a world of mystery; and a philologist in the Providence Journal, after having written some thirty columns for the enlightenment of the public thereanent, has thrown down his pen, and declared the subject exhaustless. 'From what has hitherto been discovered, it appears that the great and formidable family of the Smiths are the veritable descendants, in a direct line, from Shem, the son of Noah, the father of the Shemitish tribe, or the tribe of Shem; and it is thus derived--Shem, Shemit, Shmit, Smith. Another learned pundit, in the Philadelphia Gazette, contends for the universality of the name John Smith, not only in Great Britain and America, but among all kindred and nations on the face of the earth. Beginning with the Hebrew, he says, the Hebrews had no Christian names, consequently they had no Johns, and in Hebrew the name stood simply Shem or Shemit; but in the other nations John Smith is found at full, one and indivisible. Thus, Latin, Johannes Smithius; Italian, Giovanni Smithi; Spanish, Juan Smithas; Dutch, Hans Schmidt; French, Jean Smeets; Greek, Russian, Jonloff Skmittowski; Polish, Ivan Schmittiwciski; Chinese, Jahon Shimmit; Icelandic, Jahne Smithson; Welsh, Iihon Schmidd; Tuscarora, Ton Qa Smittia; Mexican, Jontli F'Smitti. 'And then, to prove the antiquity of the name, the same savant observes, that 'among the cartouches deciphered by Rosselini, on the temple of Osiris in Egypt, was found the name of Pharaoh Smithosis, being the ninth in the eighteenth dynasty of Theban kings. He was the founder of the celebrated temple of Smithopolis Magna.' We heartily congratulate the respectable multitude of the Smiths on these profound researches--researches which bid fair to explode the generally received opinion that the great family of the Smiths were the descendants of mere horse-shoers and hammer-men!'
Source: An Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names With an Essay on their Derivation and Import; Arthur, William, M.A.; New York, NY: Sheldon, Blake, Bleeker & CO., 1857.


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