What’s in a name? And more importantly where did names come from? Humans have been using first names (or some form of sound) to identify people for as back as language goes, but the use of last names, or surnames, is a relatively new concept though it is still thousands of years old.
This post may contain affiliate links. I will earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through an affiliate link.
Surnames both now and in the past have been used to indicate where a person came from, whether that be their family, tribe, or community.
But you may be wondering who started last names, what else they were used for, and if we still use old last names today. Read on to have these questions answered.
Where Did Last Names Come From?
Turns out, last names come from everywhere. All around the world at different points in history, different cultures began using last names for various reasons. The first country we believe to have done this was China.
Chinese Surname History
According to legend, surnames were stated by Emperor Fu Xi in 2000 BC after his administration standardized the naming system to help with census-taking and the use of this information.
During this time and for centuries after, the last name would be passed down from mother to child rather than from the father. Today though many children in China take their father’s last name, as does most of the world.
However, when a woman marries a man in China she may not take her husband’s last name as is the custom in other cultures. Instead, many Chinese women can be referred to either as their full birth names or as their husband’s surname plus the word for wife.
Europe Surname History
Last names in Europe started much later, though the names that came from here are some of the most well-known surnames in the world. Surnames didn’t begin in Europe until the Middle Ages, which lasted 2000 years from around 500 – 1500AD.
Before this time most people in Europe lived in small rural villages, with each village separated by large areas of land, meaning that people very rarely left where they were born as it was too far to travel.
As everyone knew each other, there was no need for surnames to identify where a person was from.
But as the population grew, so did towns and cities, and this lead to more trade and travel opportunities. Slowly but surely, just having a first name was not enough for people to identify you with.
Surnames were started mainly to tell the difference between people with the same name, so you could separate one “James” from another “James”. These names were then carried down the family line from a father to his children.
Surnames from Europe can be separated into four categories:
- Patronymic names – these identify people as their father’s children. So a man called Richard might have a child called Henry, so Henry could become Henry Richardson or Henry Richards
- Locative names – these identify people based on where they were born or lived. For example, Julie York would be Julie who lived in the town of York. Locative names can also refer to a land feature nearby to where the person lived, which is where we get names like Underhill and Atwood
- Occupational names – these are some of the most common surnames from the Middle Ages that have carried over to modern times. They were based on jobs or status. So Chris Baker would be a baker or Robert Knight may have chosen this surname to reflect his status as a knight.
- Nicknames – the least uncommon European surnames found today, these were used to describe the person in some way, whether it be a characteristic or personality trait. Examples include Little, Long, and Stout.
Most of these names made their way to America during colonization, especially if a person’s ancestor came from the United Kingdom.
UK Surname History
The British got a lot of their last names from the various groups that conquered them, especially from the Normans.
After 1066 when the Norman barons introduced surnames to England, many people quickly adopted this practice. They chose names that fit into the categories above, with the most popular choice being occupational names.
Older Saxon and Celtic names disappeared during this time as they were seen as unfashionable, though some have still managed to survive to the modern-day like Oswald, Oswin, and Osway, with the “Os” here meaning God in old English.
What’s The World’s Oldest Surname?
There are many contenders for the world’s oldest surname, with different historians claiming different names. While we can never know for sure what the oldest last name is, here are a few very old ones.
- Katz – one of the most popular choices for the oldest last name, Katz is a surname of Jewish origin. According to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! every Katz is a priest, descending in an unbroken line from Aaron the brother of Moses, 1300 B.C.
- Courtenay – said to be one of the oldest surnames in Europe. This name comes from an aristocratic family who still holds the title of “Lord Devon”
- O’Brien – Coming from a time where there were no real surnames in the UK or Ireland, O’Brien is first seen in 916AD. When the “O” was first added to a name it was used to identify a “grandson of Brien”.
- Priest – used first as a nickname to denote the office/job title, and later as a derogatory name, there are records of a ‘Priest’ as far back as 963AD
What’s The Most Common Surname In America?
As nearly all of the original colonizers of America came from Europe, it’s no surprise that most people now have European last names. While the most common surname in America as a whole is Smith, it does vary from state to state. The name Smith was likely derived from blacksmiths.
Other common European names include Johnson, Miller, Jones, Williams, and Anderson.
In the South and Southwest, there is much more variety in the names due to the large Latino populations. Here the most common last names are Garcia, Hernandez, Martinez, and Chavez.