How People Started Using Last Names
As part of your research your last name history will come up. Finding the origins of your family name will soon become a top priority.
A last name, also called a surname or family name, is a name that is passed down from one generation to the next. In many cultures, the woman will change her last name to her husband’s when they get married.
Research Your Surname and Your Family Tree: Find Out What Your Surname Means and Trace Your Ancestors Who Share It Too
In Europe, last names began to be used in the 12th century, but it was several centuries later before nearly every European had one. The main reason for a last name was to distinguish people from each other. In the 13th century, almost one third of the male population had the first name of John, William or Richard. To give each person a unique identifier, people began referring to different Williams as ‘Williams the son of John’ (Johnson), Richard the brown-haired (leading to Brown) etc. Eventually these names began to be passed down to children and grandchildren.
Most European and/or American last names fall into four categories:
- Last names evolved from given names like Johnson, Richardson, etc. Often, they are derived from a male ancestor (John’s son…, Richard’s son…)
- Names referring to the occupation of the bearer, including Smith (blacksmith), Wright (wheelwright)
- Names taken from the location that the bearer lived in, including Woods, Hill, etc.
- Names derived from nicknames like Long, Short, White, etc.
The study of ‘last name history’ is a fascinating sidebar to genealogy. Even more interesting is the study of surnames of other cultures such as Asian or Polynesian, where every name has a unique meaning. In the Samoan culture, adult males found worthy of a chiefly title receive a special surname that has no link to the name that he was born with. So when you are tracing Samoan lineage, you must trace beyond the ‘matai’ or chiefly name back to the birth name, which isn’t always simple. A Samoan man who becomes a chief will be born with one name and die with another.