From FHM issue 154
What’s in a name? Foster
With its ‘–er’ ending Foster is most commonly seen as an occupational name, thought to be a variant of forester, a forest worker or official, and thus linked to names such as Forest and Forrester. Another possible occupational origin is from the Old French term ‘forceter’, meaning cutler or scissor-maker. Both of these are also potential roots of the surname Forster, a close relation.
There is also another possibility though. When surnames first came into being, many people took theirs from their father’s first name – think of the variety of patronymics such as Johnson and Robertson. Foster, however, may have denoted someone who was unable to do this, as one root could be from a medieval nickname applied to a foster-child.
Foster is ranked as the 75th most common surname in England and Wales. A look at the distribution maps of 1881 and 1998 (below) shows that while Fosters were primarily concentrated in the north-east of England in the late 19th century, the focus of concentration has since moved in a north-westerly direction. York had the highest concentration of Fosters in 1881, while Darlington was the most highly concentrated area as of 1998, and the town with the highest population of Fosters is Driffield in East Yorkshire.
The most frequent forenames that precede Foster are William and John. It was an Irish-American named William, along with his brother Ralph, who began the brewing company that still bears their name in Melbourne, Australia, in 1888 – today over 30 pints of Fosters lager are said to be drunk in the UK every second. Probably the most famous and influential bearer of this name, though, was Stephen Foster, the man known as the ‘father of American songwriting’. He died in poverty at the age of 37 in 1864, but left a legacy that inspired later generations to describe him as a genius.
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