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What is a Surname?

By Emma Davies


Updated on

A surname is also known as a family name or last name. Often a hereditary name that has been passed down from one generation to the next within a family, surnames help to connect individuals to their family lineage. 

What is a Surname?

In the past, when a woman got married, she would take the last name of her new husband. Any children of the couple would have a given name for individuality, a middle name if desired, and then share the husband’s surname.

However, in more recent years, taking a man’s surname is no longer seen as a compulsory part of marriage. Two last names can be joined together with a hyphen, or women can keep their original surname when they get married.

Different Types of Surnames


Traditionally a patronymic surname is a family name that is linked to the father – patriarch – of the family. For example, the surname Harrison means ‘son of Harry’, Johnson is ‘son of John’, and so on.


Occupational surnames were formed to distinguish a person by what job or trade they did. These names include Baker, Thatcher, Potter, and Hunter.


Some last names also originate from a person’s location or place of residence. They are often associated with the name of a town or even a geographical feature.

Mary with the house by the river would have morphed into Mary Rivers. John from the middle of town would form the origins of the surname Middleton. If your surname is Hill, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that your ancestors lived on a hill.


Surnames were also formed by using a person’s looks or other physical characteristics. A man with white blonde hair may have been given the surname Snow. The youngest member of a family could have Young as a last name, for example. Other examples of characteristic surnames include Wise, Hardy, or Little.

Most Common Surnames in North America 

  • Smith
  • Anderson
  • Williams
  • Jones
  • Johnson