How Did Last Names Start? History and Origin Explained

There is a lot of history behind the development of last names and in this article we are going to take a closer look at their uses and origins. Used widely to legally identify an individual uniquely, last names are important to us for many reasons.

Patronymic & Matronymic Last Names

The terms patronymic and matronymic refer respectively to the father and mothers family lines. When it comes to surnames these terms indicate a last name that features elements from either the mother or the fathers line.

Patronymic

Patronymic surnames are last names that have originated from a given name of the father or another patrilineal ancestor. Different cultures may have different ways of producing these patronymic surnames.

As an example, early patronymic Welsh surnames came about as a result of the Anglicizing of the historical Welsh naming system. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd which translates as Llywelyn son of Gruffydd, could become Llywelyn Gruffydds.

In Scandinavian patronymic naming the given name of the father might see the addition of the suffixes “-son” for a male child and “-dotter” for a female. The fathers given name for example might be Anders and his son would have a given name and the surname Andersson. Anders' daughters would bear the surname Andersdotter.

Matronymic

Matronymic surnames are based on the given name of one's mother, grandmother, or earlier female ancestor. This is the direct female equivalent of a patronymic surname. Globally, matronymic surnames are much less common than patronymic surnames.

There are however some cultures where matronymic last names historically were given to children of unwed mothers. This could also be true if a woman was especially well known or powerful, in her own right. Her descendants might adopt a matronymic surname based on her name.

Several Asian countries have matronymic practices within certain groups in their societies. These include:

  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Arabia
  • Mongolia
  • Philippines
  • Taiwan
  • Vietnam

Occupational Surnames

The use of a person's occupation has historically been acceptable to form a surname. The reason for this being that commonly when a community were discussing someone they would give a nod to their profession. As an example a village blacksmith may be referred to by his first name followed by his profession. This would have him known as John the blacksmith which over time and generations may convert to John Smith.

OtherEnglish surnames that have an occupational origin include:

  • Thatcher
  • Miller
  • Shepherd
  • Potter
  • Farmer

This also happened in other European countries for example the German surname Eisenhauer translates as iron hewer and Schneider translates as tailor.

Toponymic Last Names

These surnames essentially arise from a place that a person may have been born or lived. They came about through a need to uniquely identify an individual who may have a common given name. As an example a gentleman with the given name Phillip who lived on or at the foot of a hill might be referred to as Phillip of the Hill.

This would also track with the names of villages, towns, cities and geographical features. Through this naming practice some interesting surnames have been created throughout Europe.

Descriptive Surnames

People's last names not only developed from an occupation or a location they sometimes came about based on a physical trait associated with an individual. Surnames such as White or Black could originate from a nickname ascribed to an individual with a certain complexion or hair color.

Height could also be a factor in surnames with names like Short or Large again being used as nicknames that eventually morphed into a surname.

History of Last Names

The use of surnames is not particularly ancient and in some cultures even today family names do not really exist. It has arisen separately in various cultures for a variety of reasons. The Roman Empire for example popularized last names spreading them through the Mediterranean and western Europe. However with the fall of the empire and the subsequent shift to Germanic and Persian influences, last names faded away in favor of other practices.

It was during the late Middle Ages that surnames made a comeback in Europe in the form of bynames. These bynames are the ones that may be based on an occupation or location associated with an individual.

China

In China family names have been common practice since at least the 2nd century BC but the earliest surnames in the country are thought to date back to 2,000 BC. Surnames were the privilege of the ruling classes.

Taxation

In Europe the use of family names was still patchy at best until laws in the 14th and 15th centuries were enacted to require people to adopt a surname. This was so that the monarchies could uniquely identify their subjects for taxation purposes.

The Modern Era

Many cultures around the world adopted family names during the modern era, particularly for administrative reasons. This was especially true during the age of European expansion from the 1600s onward. Examples of this include

  • Netherlands (1795–1811)
  • Japan (1870s)
  • Thailand (1920)
  • Turkey (1934)

The structure of the Japanese name for example was formalized by the government as the family name plus the given name in 1868.

What are the Origins of Your Surname?

The world is packed with thousands of last names each with their own origins and meanings. The method through which a last name is inherited can be ubique in some cultures and can be indicative of a person’s heritage.

Research your last name to find out about its potential origins and what it may indicate about one of your ancestors.

Sometimes Surnames are Altered

Historic immigrants to the United States sometimes saw alterations to their last names as a result of a number of factors. A misunderstanding at the port of arrival, a confused pronunciation or a deliberate alteration of a name to assimilate were all common causes.

This means sometimes you may have to dig back in your family to try and find the original name. In my own research I have found individuals who completely changed the family name to seem more American. There also can have been issues whereby the country they came from was unpopular politically so they claimed heritage and a name from another nation.

Final Thoughts

Last names to many cultures are important to help identify individuals more uniquely although some choose to use only a given name. Family names as they are also known have developed over centuries in various nations independently of each other.

A growing population and use of common given names often becomes a reason to find a way to separate one John or James from another of those names. The origin of your own last name may be based on where your ancestors came from so you may need to look deeper into its origins yourself.

Neil Edwards

Neil Edwards

Genealogist and family-tree research specialist

Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.

This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.

Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.

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