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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; the family-name meaning first appeared in 1375. Many dictionaries define "surname" as a synonym of "family name". It is also known as a "last name". In some cultures, the surname may be a patronymic or matronymic. Some cultures, for example the Burmese and some Javanese, do not use surnames.

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 Sanscrit origin, was supposed to be a rendering of "Swie Liong".

Order of words

Although surnames are commonly used as last names, in some cultures the surname comes first, followed by the given name or names; this is the case in Hungary, and countries in the Chinese cultural sphere (i.e. Japanmarker, Koreamarker, Vietnammarker and Chinamarker). However, in Hong Kongmarker and Japan, when Hongkongers and Japanese write their personal name in the Latin alphabet, it is common to reverse the order of their names for the convenience of Westerners, just as Hungarians do when associating with other Europeans. Reversing the order of names is also somewhat common in Estonian and Finnish, which are Finno-Ugric languages like Hungarian.


Name etymologists classify European surnames under five categories, depending on their origin. These include:

  • Given names. These may be a simple first name such as "Wilhelm", a patronymic such as "Anderssen", a matronymic such as "Beaton", or a clan name such as "O'Brien". Multiple surnames may be derived from a single given name: there are thought to be over 90 Italian surnames based on the given name "Giovanni".
  • Occupational names. These include simple occupational names such as "Eisenhauer" (later Anglicized in America as "Eisenhower") or "Schneider" 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, 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"; the last is often wrongly thought to be an Anglicization of the French name "D'Ath". It is now thought that the surname "D'Ath" arose well after the surname "Death" was first used.
  • Location names. These 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", while "Lucci" likely means "resident of Luccamarker". Although some surnames (such as "London" or "Bialystok") are derived from large cities, more reflect the names of smaller communities. 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.
  • Nicknames. These include names based on appearance such as "Schwartzkopf", "Short", and probably "Caesar", 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". 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. Many families later changed these names.
  • Ornamental names. These surnames are more common in communities which adopted (or were forced to adopt) surnames in the 18th and 19th centuries, and are common among Jewish families and in Scandinavia. Examples include "Morgenstern" ("morning star"), "Safire" ("sapphire"), and "Reis" ("branch").

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. 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; in some instances, however, the name may have arisen from Lucca, with the spelling and pronunciation changing over time and with emigration. The name "Lee" may be English, but it may also be an Anglicization of the Chinese "Li".

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. 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.

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"). 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.
See Icelandic names

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). The words patronymic and matronymic derive from Greek patr (father) and matr (mother), + onyma (name). 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 Olson(Son of Ole/Ola) the three most common surnames in Norwaymarker.

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 Nadumarker and Keralamarker (unlike another Indian state Andhra Pradeshmarker, 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 obtains in Greece. However, unlike the Icelandic case, only the family name is generally identified as a surname proper.

Culture and prevalence

In the United States, 1,712 surnames cover 50% of the population, and over 1% of the population has the surname Smith. Approximately 70 percent of Canadians have surnames that are of English, Irish, or Scottish derivation.

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

See also


  1. "surname", Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. December 10, 2007.
  2. Bowman, William Dodgson. The Story of Surnames. London, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1932. No ISBN.
  3. Cottle, Basil. Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967. No ISBN.
  4. Hanks, Patrick, and Hodges, Olivia. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1989. ISBN 0192115928.
  5. Reaney, P.H., and Wilson, R.M. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Rev. 3rd ed. ISBN 0198600925.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division (1995). Genealogy. U.S. Census Bureau.
  7. LaFRANIERE S. (2009). Name Not on Our List? Change It, China Says. New York Times.

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