A surname is a name added to a given name and is part of a personal name. In many cases, a surname is a family name. Many dictionaries define "surname" as a synonym of "family name". In some Western countries, it is commonly called "last name", with the notable exception of Hungary, where, just like in China, Japan and in many other East Asian countries, the family name is placed before a person's given name.

The western style of having both a family name (surname) and a given name (Christian name or forename) is far from universal. In many countries it is common for ordinary people to have only one name or Mononym.


Order of words

In some cultures, including those of most Western countries, the surname or family name ("last name") is placed after the personal or given name ("first name"). In other cultures the surname is placed first, followed by the given name or names; this is the case in Hungary, Andhra Pradesh in South India, Sri Lanka[1] and countries in the Chinese cultural sphere including Japan, Korea, Vietnam and China.

In Japan and Hong Kong (China), when people of Japanese or Hong Kong Chinese origin, respectively, write their personal name in the Latin alphabet, it is common to reverse the order of the given and family names for the convenience of Westerners. Hungarians do the same when interacting with other Europeans. Reversing the order of names is also customary for the Baltic Fennic peoples and the Hungarians, but other Uralic peoples didn't need surnames, because of the clanic structure of their societies. Surnames have been imposed by the dominant authorities: evangelists, then administrations. Thus, the Samis saw no change or a transformation of their name, for example: some Sire became Siri,[2] Hætta Jáhkoš Ásslat became Aslak Jacobsen Hætta — as it was the norm until recently, when integration into the EU and accelerated international exchanges pushed many people to reverse the order of their full name to given name - surname, so that they are not called Ms. Rauha (a first name), just like Japanese, some Koreans, Chinese or some Vietnamese do, for the same reason.

In France and Italy, administrative usage is to put the surname before the first on official documents.


Name etymologists classify European surnames under five categories, depending on their origin: given name, occupational name, location name, nickname, and ornamental name.[3][4] This classification can be extended to surnames originating elsewhere.Passed down from generations.

Given name

These may be a simple first name such as "Wilhelm", a patronymic such as "Andersen", a matronymic such as "Beaton", or a clan name such as "O'Brien". Multiple surnames may be derived from a single given name: e.g. there are thought to be over 90 Italian surnames based on the given name "Giovanni".[5]

Occupational name

Occupational names include such simple examples as "Eisenhauer" (iron worker, later Anglicized in America as "Eisenhower") or "Schneider" (tailor) as well as more complicated names based on occupational titles. In England it was common for servants to take a modified version of their employer's occupation or first name as their last name, adding the letter "s" to the word, although this formation could also be a patronymic. For instance, the surname "Vickers" is thought to have arisen as an occupational name adopted by the servant of a vicar,[6] while "Roberts" could have been adopted by either the son or the servant of a man named Robert. A subset of occupational names in English are names thought to be derived from the medieval mystery plays. The participants would often play the same roles for life, passing the part down to their oldest sons. Names derived from this may include "King", "Lord", "Virgin", and "Death";[3] the last is often wrongly thought to be an Anglicization of the French name "D'Ath".[4] It is now thought that the surname "D'Ath" arose well after the surname "Death" was first used.[4]

Location name

Location names, or habitation names, may be as generic as "Gorski" (Polish for "hill") or "Pitt" (English for "pit"), but may also refer to specific locations. "Washington", for instance, is thought to mean "the homestead of the family of Wassa",[4] while "Lucci" likely means "resident of Lucca".[5] Although some surnames (such as "London" or "Bialystok") are derived from large cities, more people reflect the names of smaller communities, as in Ó Creachmhaoil, derived from a village in County Galway. This is thought to be due to the tendency in Europe during the Middle Ages for migration to chiefly be from smaller communities to the cities, and the need for new arrivals to choose a defining surname.[3][4]

Many Japanese surnames derive from geographical features; for example, Ishikawa (石川) means "stone river", Yamamoto (山本) means "the base of the mountain", and Inoue (井上) means "above the well".

Arabic names also contain surnames that denote the city of origin, for example, in cases of Saddam Hussein al Tikriti,[7] meaning Saddam Hussein of Tikrit, a city in Iraq. This component of the name is called a nisbah.


These include names, also known as eke-names,[8] based on appearance such as "Schwartzkopf", "Short", and probably "Caesar",[5] and names based on temperament and personality such as "Daft", "Gutman", and "Maiden", which according to a number of sources was an English nickname meaning "effeminate".[4][5] When Jewish families in Central Europe were forced to adopt surnames in the 18th and 19th century, those who failed to choose a surname were often given pejorative or even cruel nicknames (such as "Schweinmann" ("pig man") or "Schmutz" (a variant of "filthy")) by the local registrar.[3] Many families later changed these names.

Ornamental name

Ornamental names as surnames are more common in communities which adopted (or were forced to adopt) surnames in the 18th and 19th centuries,[3] and are common among Jewish families and in Scandinavia.[5] Examples include "Morgenstern" ("morning star"), "Safire" ("sapphire"), and "Reis" ("branch"). In some cases, such as Chinese Indonesians and Chinese Thais, certain ethnic groups are subject to political pressure to change their surnames, in which case surnames can lose their family-name meaning. For instance, Indonesian business tycoon Liem Swie Liong (林绍良) "indonesianised" his name to Sudono Salim. In this case "Liem" (林) was rendered by "Salim", a name of Arabic origin, while "Sudono", a Javanese name with the honorific prefix "su-" of Sanskrit origin, was supposed to be a rendering of "Swie Liong".

Gender-specific versions of surname

Cultures like Greek and Russian tend to have surnames that change form depending on the gender of the person. For example in Greece, if a man called Papadopoulos has a daughter, she will likely be named Papadopoulou (if the couple have decided their offspring will take the father's surname), since that name has a female version.


The meanings of some names are unknown or unclear. The most common European name in this category may be the Irish name "Ryan", which has no known meaning.[4][6] Other surnames may have arisen from more than one source: the name "De Luca", for instance, likely arose either in or near Lucania or in the family of someone named Lucas or Lucius;[5] in some instances, however, the name may have arisen from Lucca, with the spelling and pronunciation changing over time and with emigration.[5] The same name may appear in different cultures by coincidence or romanization; the surname Lee is used in English culture, but is also a romanization of the Chinese surname Li.[6]

Surname origins have been the subject of much folk etymology, often by individuals intent on proving that their own surname is more noble or royal than the average name. The name "Ryan" mentioned above, for example, is often said to be derived from Gaelic words meaning "little king"; this etymology is commonly found on name origin websites and in less stringently edited books.[5][6] Some folk etymologies also develop because a name is seen to be coarse or crude: the surname "Death" is explained away as being an Anglicization of "D'Ath" for this reason.[4]

Surnames were uncommon prior to the 12th century, and still somewhat rare into the 13th; most European surnames were originally occupational or locational, and served to distinguish one person from another if they happened to live near one another (e.g., two different people named John could conceivably be identified as 'John Butcher' and 'John Chandler'). This still happens, in some communities where a surname is particularly common, for example on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, many residents have the family name MacLeod (son of Lewis) and so may still be known by a surname symbolising their occupation such as 'Kevin the post' and 'Kevin Handbag'

In French Canada until the 19th century, several families adopted surnames that followed the family name in order to distinguish the various branches of a large family. Such a surname was preceded by the word "dit" ("said") and was known as a "nom-dit" ("said-name"). (Compare with some Roman naming conventions.) While this tradition is no longer in use, in many cases the nom-dit has come to replace the original family name. Thus the Bourbeau family has split into Bourbeau dit Verville, Bourbeau dit Lacourse, and Bourbeau dit Beauchesne. In many cases Verville, Lacourse, or Beauchesne has become the new family name. Likewise, the Rivard family has split into the Rivard dit Lavigne, Rivard dit Loranger and Rivard dit Lanoie. The origin of the nom-dit can vary. Often it denoted a geographical trait of the area where that branch of the family lived: Verville lived towards the city, Beauchesne lived near an oak tree, Larivière near a river, etc. Some of the oldest noms-dits are derived from the war name of a settler who served in the army or militia: Tranchemontagne ("mountain slasher"), Jolicœur ("braveheart"). Others denote a personal trait: Lacourse might have been a fast runner, Legrand was probably tall, etc.

Surname formed from a parent's name

A simple family tree showing the Icelandic patronymic naming system.

The Icelandic system, formerly used in much of Scandinavia, does not use family names. A person's surname indicates the first name of the person's father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic). Most family names in other Scandinavian countries are a result of this naming practice, such as Hansen (son of Hans), Johansen (son of Johan) and Olsen (Son of Ole/Ola) the three most common surnames in Norway.[9]

Patronymic name conventions are similar in some other nations, including Malaysia (see Malaysian name) and other Muslim countries, among most people of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala (unlike another Indian state Andhra Pradesh, where ancestral origin village names have become surnames for the people), in Mongolia and in the Scottish Gaelic personal naming system. In Russia and Bulgaria, both a patronym and a family name are obligatory parts of one's full name: e.g., if a Russian is called Ivan Andreyevich Sergeyev, that means that his father's name is Andrey and his family name is Sergeyev. A similar system is used in Greece. However, unlike the Icelandic case, only the family name is generally identified as a surname proper.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, a child adopts the given name of one of their parents, usually the father, as a pseudo-surname. For example, Abraham Mesfin's father's name would have been Mesfin, while a child would be called "Nestanet Abraham". Referring to Abraham Mesfin as "Mr. Mesfin" would be erroneous: The correct term would be "Mr. Abraham". Very rarely do children adopt their mother's given name, who in any case would retain their "pseudo-surname".

Culture and prevalence

In the United States, 1,712 surnames cover 50 percent of the population, and about 1 percent of the population has the surname Smith,[10] which is also the most common English name and an occupational name ("metal worker"), a contraction of blacksmith or ironsmith.

Approximately 70 percent of Canadians have surnames that are of English, Irish, French, or Scottish derivation.

Some estimates say that 85 percent of China's population shares 100 surnames. In China the names Wang, Zhang and Li are the most common.[11]

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Guttorm, [2]
  3. ^ a b c d e Bowman, William Dodgson. The Story of Surnames. London, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1932. No ISBN.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Cottle, Basil. Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967. No ISBN.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Hanks, Patrick and Hodges, Flavia. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1989. ISBN 0192115928.
  6. ^ a b c d Reaney, P.H., and Wilson, R.M. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Rev. 3rd ed. ISBN 0198600925.
  7. ^ "Saddam Hussein's top aides hanged". BBC News. 15 January 2007. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Statistics Norway name statistics, 2009
  10. ^ Genealogy, U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division (1995).
  11. ^ LaFraniere S. Name Not on Our List? Change It, China Says. New York Times. April 20, 2009.

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