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Where the Heck did Surnames Come From?

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We all have last names. In fact, we all need last names. Imagine trying to open a bank account, get a driver's license, register to vote, or fill out a simple form without one. Fortunately, they come standard. We get them from our fathers, who got them from their fathers, who got them from their fathers, who got them.... It seems like they've been around forever, but the truth is, last names - a.k.a. surnames - came into being only about 800 years ago.


In Europe, there was no need for surnames until about the 12th century. Before then, most people lived in rural areas or small villages where everyone knew everyone else, so first names were enough to identify them. William was William, and Thomas was Thomas, until the population started to grow, and suddenly there were five Willams and three Thomases in the village. This caused a problem.

One villager might say to another:

"Did you hear that William's mule broke its leg yesterday?"

"Which William?" asks the other.

"Um...the one with a mule."

"There are three Williams with mules, ya idiot!"

Talk about confusing! The villagers' need for a better way of identifying each other sparked the development of the surname.

People didn't just conjure these names out of thin air; they were most commonly based on:

  • First names: William might become "William Johnson" because his father's name is John. Thomas is the son of Thomas, so he could be "Thomas Thomason."
  • Location: If William moves to London, the village folk might refer to him as "William London." Thomas could be "Thomas Hill" because his house is on a hill.
  • Occupation: "William Farmer" might be the guy with the mule, and "Thomas Smith" is most likely the village blacksmith.
  • Nicknames: Since William's mule incident was big news around the village, his neighbors might start calling him "William Brokemule." Thomas is often seen at the pub, downing pint after pint of ale, so they might call him "Thomas Rednose."
  • Societal: William was tired of being a farmer, so he joined the clergy and he's doing very well in his new occupation. In fact, he's doing so well that the folks back home might call him "William Bishop" someday. Thomas likes the cozy village, however all the girls know about his drinking problem, so he may become known as "Thomas Bachelor."


As years went by, surnames changed and evolved. Priests, clerks, and other officials who created documents often misunderstood or misspelled names, and since most of the people were illiterate, the mistakes went unnoticed. A great many of the immigrants who flooded into America in the 19th century couldn't speak English, and the over-worked clerks at immigration points, like Ellis Island, just wrote down what they thought they heard, changing people's names forever. A good number of immigrants Anglicized their names, so Schwartz became Black, Foret became Forest, and so on. Even now, some immigrants and illegal aliens change or Anglicize their names when they arrive in America.


Today people change surnames when they marry or have children. Fewer and fewer brides take their new husbands' names when they get married; some keep their own and some hyphenate. If Sarah Winter marries Frank Hall, she might choose to be Sarah Winter-Hall. When couples have babies, the latest trend is to make new surnames by melding theirs, or creating new ones for the children. When Sarah and Frank have a little one, his/her last name might be Halwin, or Winnall. If Sarah and Frank are especially creative, their baby's surname might be Azuresea, Snowstar, or Brokemule.

No one knows what the next step in the evolution of surnames will be, but one thing's certain: genealogists of the future will be driven mad by the impossibility of tracing their family trees.

Author: Madeleine Wieder

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