Surnames, also referred to as family names or “last” names, are a relatively recent human attribute. When the population of the world was small and people rarely travelled far from where they were born, individuals were known only by their given (or “first”) names. However, as populations grew and people moved to different locations, it was necessary to distinguish between individuals who had the same given name. Surnames were given which indicated occupations, physical characteristics/temperaments, where individuals were from, or the name of their father.
Here are some examples:
Occupations: Smith, Miller, Taylor, Clark (clerk), Chandler (candle-maker), Cooper (barrel-maker)
Physical characteristics/temperaments: Little, Blackbeard, Drinkwater, Brown, White
Locations: London, Moore (open land or bog), Hill, Wood
Name of father: Johnson, Wilson, Anderson, Williams (son of Will), Davis (son of David)
While the use of family names is common in most cultures around the world, different cultures have their own rules about how surnames are formed, used, and passed from generation to generation. In many of the Western cultures, surnames pass through the male lines, with women taking their husband’s family name at marriage and children taking their father’s surname at birth. In many Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, two or more surnames (both the father’s and mother’s) may be used, and in many Asian countries, the family name is stated first, before the individual’s given name.
The study of the origins, history and use of proper names (including surnames) is called onomastics.
In genealogy, some projects research a specific surname rather than a particular individual or family. These projects (referred to as “one-name studies”) may focus on a geographical area or a specific period of time, or may look for occurrences of the name globally over time.
Behind the name: the etymology and history of surnames (www.surname.behindthename.com : accessed 16 May 2016).
“What’s in a name? Lesson 1: How Did Surnames Come to Be?” EDSITEment! The Best of the Humanities on the Web (www.edsitement.neh.gov : accessed 16 May 2016).
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