General Question

swtsally's avatar

Where did last names come from?

Asked by swtsally (131points) June 1st, 2009

always wondered that..

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14 Answers

cyn's avatar

regions…or the name of the owned land…

Darwin's avatar

They developed as a way to tell people apart as well as shorthand to let others know what family you are part of.

Hence, John #1 becomes John the Potter (John Potter), John #2 becomes John the Smith (John Smith), John #3 becomes John the Smith’s son (John Smithson) and John #4 becomes John from County Mayo (John Mayo).

AstroChuck's avatar

It depends. In a name such as O’Brian or MacDonald then it means “son of Brian” or “son of Donald.” Perhaps Brian has a son who is also named Brian. To distinguish him from his father he might be known as “Brian the younger.” That could result in the surname of Young or Younger. John is a common name. If someone named John came from the township of Kent he might be known as “John from Kent” or just “John Kent.” If another John works as a blacksmith he may be called “John the smith” or “John Smith.” Perhaps José is known as a pious person. He might be called José Morales (which is Spanish for Morals).
My last name is Clarke so I apparently have an ancestor who was a clerk or cleric.
And dats da name of dat tune.

AstroChuck's avatar

Damn, @Darwin. You wrote virtually the same thing as I’m typing away on my iPhone. You rule!

Darwin's avatar

@AstroChuck – Thanks for the compliment, but I am using a full-sized QWERTY keyboard so I suspect I can type faster than you. The difference is all due to technology.

AstroChuck's avatar

No, no. Don’t be so modest. You rule and…
I suck. :(

toomuchcoffee911's avatar

Some names came from what you did for a living (Gardener, Smith, etc).

…I think…

netspencer's avatar

But how exactly did people get “assigned” their last names? Unlike first names, last names are rarely unique.

Darwin's avatar

@netspencer – Originally the names just happened, as a way to separate the three different guys named Robert who all lived in the same village, and so on. Later, it became useful to append the father’s last name to the offspring to keep track of who was members of the rich branch of the family as opposed to the sheep-stealers.

There was no organized way of getting a last name. It was an organic process that was eventually codified in Britain about the time government started keeping formal track of people in the Domesday Book back in 1085.

Other countries and regions did it at different times. For example, China had hereditary family names dating back to the 4th century B.C., while Scandinavian countries developed mandatory family names as recently as the mid-1800s. Most European countries had hereditary last names somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries, but some were as late as the late 1700’s.

Sometimes last names were indeed assigned, as in the last names assigned to German Jews to replace the Hebraic last names they had before. They were typically given last names in German that said where they lived or what they did for a living. However, the last name that a family got was affected by how much they could afford to pay. If you paid more you got a last name that referred to wealth or something nice, such as a rose. If you couldn’t pay very much you might get a last name that some clerk just made up out of nonsense syllables or that meant something common, like Eisen (iron).

And sometimes a person’s last name is a link to their parent of the same sex, as in Iceland, where males have the last name of dad’s first name + son, and females mom’s first name + dotter.

Jeruba's avatar

All these categories are covered in the link provided by bythebay in the second reponse.

Darwin's avatar

@Jeruba – But some of us are having fun writing it all out.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Björk’s last name is Gudmundsdottir. Or, actually, Guðmundsdóttir. So presumably, some male ancestor of hers was very nice. Or maybe someone was a japester. Who knows?

I knew a kid in middle school with the name Grosskopf, which means “fat head” in German. Apparently, some ancestor of his either didn’t have the money to pay for a better name, or he pissed off some official in the alte Stadt.

One of my family names is from Cumberland, in Northern England, and it’s a location name meaning “The town in or surrounded by oat fields”.

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