When a baby is born, parents have the very important job of choosing a name for their little one. Deciding on a surname is much easier than picking a first name. Married couples often don’t have to worry about choosing a surname at all.
If you want to know more about surnames, you have come to the right place. What is a surname? Is a surname the last name? We answer all of your surname questions here.
What Are Surnames?
A surname is a name given to all members of the same family. Surnames are passed down through the generations and are also known as the family name or last name.
In the past, when a woman got married she would take the surname of her new husband. Any children the couple went on to have would also share this same surname. In more recent years, taking a man’s surname is no longer seen as a compulsory part of marriage. Surnames can be joined with a hyphen – double barrelled – or women can keep their original surname when they get married.
Some of the most common surnames used in North America today include:
Origin of Last Names
To understand the American surname origin story, we need to travel back several hundreds of years to the United Kingdom. Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, people living in tribes across the UK would have just one name – their first or given name.
As the population began to grow, surnames were needed to distinguish one person from the next. Surnames were originally based on a person’s occupation. For example, William the Baker or David the Blacksmith.
It wasn’t uncommon for people to have more than one surname throughout their lifetime. As professions and marital statuses changed, so would a person’s last name. The concept of a hereditary surname was not introduced until parish registers were established in the 1500s.
Many American surnames used today originate from the United Kingdom. Common surnames such as Williams, Smith, and Jones have their roots in Wales or England. When the British colonized North America in the 16th century, surnames also migrated across the pond.
Back to today and many of the US states legally require at least two names on a birth certificate. When naming your baby, they must have a first name (given name) and a surname (family name). The most popular surnames used in America today have either a British or Hispanic background.
Different Types of Surname
Throughout history, there have been several different types of surnames. Many of the last names used today will have originally fallen into one of the following categories:
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 they did. For example, Baker, Thatcher, Potter, and Hunter are all occupational surnames.
As well as having surnames linked to jobs, last names also originated from a person’s location. 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.
What’s a Surname?
Over the course of history, the meaning of surnames has changed. No longer are surnames linked to a person’s occupation or location. Instead, hereditary surnames are passed down through families and children often inherit their family names.
Surnames mean different things but they all have one thing in common – they link family members together. If you are about to name your new baby, concentrate less on your surname meaning and more on finding a first name that best suits your new bundle of joy.