How Did Last Names Start?

If you want to research your family’s genealogy, you start with your parents’ last names and work backward. The first few generations are typically straightforward, but the further back you search, the more complicated the search becomes. The spelling of last names is not consistent, or the name changes completely and it’s enough to make one wonder about the history of last names.

Last names started as the population grew, and it became necessary to distinguish people who had the same first name. Early last names came from locations, occupations, or characteristics, but eventually, surnames became hereditary.   

Exploring your genealogy can be both exciting, frustrating, and fascinating. The same can be said about the study of last names. Read on to learn the fascinating history of last names.

How Did Last Names Start?
How Did Last Names Start?

Why Do We Have Last Names?

We have last names for several reasons. First, last names were used to distinguish one William from the next. This became necessary as villages grew large enough that one or more people with the same first name lived them.  

The problem was solved by giving people another name. At first, it was easy enough to distinguish people by occupation, where they lived, who they were related to, or physical traits, among others.  

Census taking and taxes are another reason people have surnames. If a region had five Arthurs, a tax collector had difficulty distinguishing which Arthur had paid and which one still owed money.  

In England, William the Conqueror ordered a survey in 1086 to do precisely that. Called the Domesday Book, its purpose was to determine who owed him taxes (“dues”). The practice of using last names for purposes of taking a census goes back further than 1086. The Chinese emperor Fu Xi established a standardized naming system in 2852 BCE.  

We also have last names because governments decreed that citizens would be required to have one. Some countries did not require them until recently, as these examples show:

  • The Netherlands–1811
  • Japan—1868 
  • Thailand—1913
  • Turkey–1943  

Even today, a few countries do not require last names, including Iceland and Tibet.

Where Did Last Names Come From?

Today most of us get our last names from our parents, but it hasn’t always been that way. When the practice of the last name began, people had to come up with their names. They had several choices:

  • Locative. Locative names are those based on the location—where a person was born or where they live. This is common with British surnames, and some estimate that half of English last names are locative—Marsh, Dell, Lake, Rivers, names that end in -field are just some examples.
  • Patronymic. Patronymic last names are nearly universal. This is the custom of giving children the father’s last name. 
  • Matronymic. Last names that come from the mother. This is an uncommon but not unheard-of practice. For example, before 1046 BCE, surnames in China came from the mother’s side. Today, matronymic last names can be found in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and some Asian communities.
  • Occupational. Last names such as Carpenter, Baker, Potter, and Weaver indicate the occupation of the person who was given that name.  
  • Personal Characteristics. Last names were sometimes given based on unique characteristics such as size, such as Short or Little, or an individual trait, such as Stern or Swift.

When Did Last Names Start in England?

The English should thank the French for their last names, in more ways than one.

After the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought with them the widespread use of surnames. At first, the landowners and aristocrats used last names, but gradually, most families used last names passed down from one generation to the next. Several centuries later, King Henry VII decreed that children be given the father’s last name.

Also, families with Celtic or Saxon last names eventually adopted English surnames, both to be fashionable and blend in as the Celts were not held in high regard by the Normans. Even many first names we think of as English, like Henry, William, and Robert, were French or French-derived names. 

Most English families had hereditary last names by 1400. It may not look that way based on the way people’s last names were spelled. Since many people could not read or write, the spelling of names was often done by church officials or government clerks. And because there was no consistency in English spelling at the time, Smith could be Smythe, Smithe, or Smyth while Shakespeare was also spelled Shakspere, Shakespere, Shaxpere, and Sakspere.  

Don’t Members of the Royal Family Have Last Names?

Ironically, few people call members of the Royal Family by their last name. The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, has a last name—Windsor—but she is simply known as Queen Elizabeth. The same is true of Prince Harry, Prince William, and Prince Charles. Only those members of the royal family who do not have a title use their last names.

Before 1917, members of the British royalty didn’t have last names. Instead, they used the dynasty name. Queen Elizabeth is of the House of Windsor. She could have been of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha House, but her grandfather changed the name of his house to Windsor in 1917.

No wonder the history of the English royal families can be so confusing.

Not All Countries Have the Same Naming Customs

Naming customs in the United States are generally straightforward: given first and middle names followed by the father’s last name. Other cultures have more complicated naming customs. These can be complicated for those of us who are not used to them.

Take, for example, Spanish naming customs.

You might have noticed that people with Spanish or Hispanic names have either three or four names. Let’s say the person has three names: Luis Hernandez Zapatero.

  • The first name, Luis, is the given name, the Spanish version of the French Louis.
  • But Hernandez is not Luis’ middle name. Instead, it is his father’s surname.
  • And Zapatero is his mother’s last name.

In most Spanish cultures, women do not change their names when they marry. However, the couple’s children receive the paternal names. If Luis’ wife is Julia Rodriquez Espinosa, their children’s surnames would be Hernandez Rodriquez. 

Also, Spanish people are addressed by their paternal surname, so that Luis Hernandez Zapatero would be Senor Hernandez.  

To avoid confusing Americans, Hispanic people sometimes hyphenate their names: Luis Hernandez-Zapatero.

Chinese naming customs become confusing when translated into English. In China, first comes the family name and then the given name. The English equivalent would be Smith John. But when the Chinese names are used in American or European countries, confusion often occurs, especially once the Chinese person takes a Western name.  

For example, an American seeing the name John Tsang Chun-wah might think Chun-wah is the last name when actually, Tsang is what we would call the last name, and Chun-wah is John’s Chinese given name.

What Are the 10 Most Popular Last Names in the US?

The 10 most popular names reflect the changing demographics of the United States. Smith has been the most popular name for a long time, with 2.4 million Smiths currently in the US, according to 24/7 Wall Street.

Because most early settlers came from English-speaking countries, most surnames can be traced to England or other European countries. However, that is changing.

These are the 10 most popular last names and how often they occur per 100,000 people:

  • Smith: 828.2 per 100,000
  • Johnson: 655.2
  • Williams: 551.0
  • Brown: 487.2
  • Jones: 483.2
  • Garcia: 395.3
  • Miller: 393.7
  • Davis: 378.5
  • Rodriguez: 371.2
  • Martinez: 359.4

Bottom Line

Last names started as a way to distinguish one William from another. Early names were often based on occupation or location. The history behind last names and their customs is fascinating itself. Consider tracing the history of your name and see where it takes you.


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How Did Last Names Start?