What’s in a name? It’s a classic Shakespeare quote, but it’s also a valid question. Have you ever wondered where your last name comes from – or where the concept of last names come from, in general?
Where Do Last Names Come From?
In the English-Speaking world, surnames are referred to as “last names” as they usually go at the end of someone’s name. However, in parts of Asia, Europe and Africa, a family name is placed before a person’s given name. In Spanish and Portugese-speaking countries, it is common for families to use two, three or more surnames.
According to Wonderopolis, people didn’t always have surnames. In Europe, they weren’t necessary as small villages were separated by large areas of farmland, and everyone knew each other. However, around the Middle Ages, as the villages grew and people began to travel, surnames became essential.
European surnames come from a variety of sources. Patronymic ones originate from father’s first names — e.g. John’s daughter Sarah would have become ‘Sarah John’.
If John adopted a son named Matthew, he would have been called ‘Matthew Johnson’ AKA ‘John’s son’.
Locative names are based on folks’ birthplaces, where they live, or work. Wonderopolis uses the examples of Sara York being “the Sara who lived in the town of York” and Theodore Underhill as a reference to the hills where he might’ve lived.
Then there are occupational or status surnames like Baker and Knight and nicknames like Long, Short, or Little that may have been used to describe someone’s characteristics.
As for Australians, a 2018 report released by White Pages, revealed that the country’s most popular surnames are Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown, Wilson and Taylor.
Thought Co reports that these surnames have British roots as many of Australia’s original colonists were transported convicts from the UK, hailing from England, Wales and Scotland.
If you’re keen to find out where your surname originates from, check out familysearch.org which will give you its origins, meaning and the countries in which it’s most likely found.