Where did last names come from

This perplexed me the other evening, and i know I will get a good answer here. Since on the male side of things, last names do not often change, how can one trace if back in time to the originating point. Religion would have me believe that I will end up with Adam and Eve. I assume they has last names, however, I can not get past that while incest of the offspring issue they would have :slight_smile: At what point is our earliest site of when people started using last names? Was it that the cavemen civilization came to a point where they were intelligent enough to know that first names were just not enough and they started making up last name, or is the descending from caveman still not proven enough to take that as the first point in time that we had last names.

Even still, I am a little stuck on the idea that someone had a last name as the first person, surely they had parents, and those parents must have had a last name, and their parents in turn must have as well?

The most common last names seem to be from one’s parents or one’s profession. My heritage is mainly Norwegian/Swedish, they used the parent’s names as last names. Theoretically, if my family name hadn’t been changed from Thorstensen, I could have traced it all the way back to some guy named Ole.

Many English last names date back to what i think was the norman “invasion” of england. The french wanted to take account of EVERYTHING they got with england so they wrote the famous domesay book. During which time, they felt it nessecary to start giving everyone last names. that is why many people have last names based on occupations. another source is adding son to the end of a name for a son. i.e. J. Goodman begits A. Goodmanson.

My two cents worth and for my liking it’s Surname but I don’t know where that come from but from what I believe it was originally a trade name for example Peter the Blacksmith would be shortened down to Peter the Smith and then Later just Peter Smith. Or Ben son of John and in this example John would just be a very well known person the name later becoming Ben Johnson. But that’s about all I know.

Well, I couldn’t say when people started using last names, although I have heard that in some countries, last names are relatively recent, possibly not even regularly used until the 20th century.

As for how a person could have a last name without their parents having one, that’s simple. Quite often, people would never leave their hometown (not even for a brief trip, much less a permanent move) and there might be only a couple hundred people in the town, certainly few enough that each person had a unique name. But then, eventually, towns started getting bigger and people starting travelling more, which made it more likely that people would start having duplicate name. Eventually, descriptions would be added to names to differentiate John the Smith (John Smith) from John, Andrew’s son (John Anderson), and John who lives next to the river (John Rivers). Even more eventually, John Smith’s kids, instead of getting descriptor names of their own (and becoming Tom Carpenter and Bob Weaver) kept their father’s name. And so on.

The languages from which the names are derived demonstrate the Norman influence.

I’m Sutton: meaning ‘south farm’, from the French sud and the Saxon tun. The locals obviously were talking about the farm in their own tongue, and the Normans designated it as the sud one. And everyone from there acquired that name.

Some last names are old: The Romans used multiple names for instance (though they could, and did, change them at the drop of a hat, or conquest). But over time, many family names were lost or otherwise fell into disuse. Much of this would depend upon where you livedand such.

Most (modern) last names developed through an alteration of various titles and/or traits for greater identification (and through a wee bit of laziness if you ask me - or efficiency, if you like). Many of the early last names were first adjectives used to differentiate/describe people.

There are four (main) categories:

1) Who your parent(s) (usually father) are/were: “I am John’s son, Dewey” therefore “I am Dewey, John’s son” to “Dewey Johnson”. This category also includes using first names as last names (many of these are the parent’s name).

2) Where you came from (or live): “I am Dewey from near the lake” to “I am Dewey DuLac”

3) What your profession or title is: “I am Dewey the town Smithy” (the profession title for an unspecified metalworker) shortens to “Dewey Smith” or if he made hammers/handtools only he might be “Dewey hammersmith” shortened to “Hamsmith” or just “smith”.

4) A physical trait of the individual: “I am Dewey, the short one” therefore “I am Dewey the short” (This category includes nicknames or other discriptors.)

A possible fifth category might be simply the assigning of names (probably more common for slaves or other workers early on but also done by the millions for immigrants). I have never seen this argued as strongly as the others though (possibly because the name assigned was derived from one of the previous four reasons).

Keep in mind these don’t have to be in the native tongue, and the spelling can be altered to suit the individual or culture (spelling was rarely as important as sounding a word out).

Over time many of these designators were simplified (shortened or otherwise altered - the lazy/efficiency part), and finally, they were kept as family designators - our last names.

Obviously this explanation is extremely simplified, but this is the jist of it.

Yebbut how did people then get names like King and Pope? There can’t have been that many (there was only 1 English pope for instance), yet they’re quite common names.

And what about colours; why are there people named White, Brown, Black, Green and Grey, but no Purple, Orange, Blue or Red?

I realize we simul-posted (or whatever the term) but…

I don’t know about “Pope” off hand, but the word “King” is related to kin (as in family) so it may simply be referring to, “a family member”.

I am dumb. (little smacky guy here)

pope = papa (from latin through old english).

My wife just pointed that out for me. :slight_smile:

Actually, according to www.allwords.com, “king” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “cyning”.

White, Silver, and Grey could designate someone who was prematurely grey. White or Winter or Silver could also be the nickname for someone who was very fair, or even an albino. Brown, Black, and Green are all eye colors, and Brown and Black are skin and hair colors, too. I was just reading a book set in 18th century Ireland, and the heroine is called Black Maire, or Black Mary, or the Black Rose, because her hair and eyes are black, and her skin is darker than most people’s (she’s still what most people would call caucasian, though).

A clever person might be called “The Fox”, particularly if redhaired.

All colours of hair or eyes

There’s Redd, but it isn’t common - neither is red hair. There’s also Reid, which I guess is related. I see no reason why anybody would be described as purple or orange.

I’m always intrigued by almost the opposite problem; will all the surnames vanish? When two people marry, quite often one surname vanishes. Even if a woman decided to keep her maiden name, I think a lot of the time children wil all take on the same surname, be it mum’s or dad’s. Even if they don’t there are hardly any new names springing into existence (apart from people changing names by deed poll, which I reckon must be a minority). At least not in western cultures anyway. So will all people in western cultures eventually end up with the same surname?

Pope, I wouldn’t known (but perhaps originally a nickname making fun of someone’s personnality : mocking his arrogance, for instance. There are many such names). As for “king” , it seems that some of these names originated in someone gaining a title in a contest. At least, it was true in France for archery contests, where the winner would receive the title “roi” (king). It could have been the same in the UK.

Because people are rarely purple orange or blue, nor in hair color, nor in complexion. But they may have black hair or a rather dark skin. Remember that names appeared to distinguish between people having the same christian name.

By the way, an anecdote : in the village I was brought up in, a cousin of mine, whose name is “Dubois” (Wood) is called by essentially everybody Mr Leblanc (Mr Thewhite), and most people who don’t know him well do believe it’s his real name.

He, his father and his grand father have been called that way because his grand-father’s hair turned white when he was very young, hence he was nicknamed “the white”. This nickname stuck, and passed down to the child and grandchild. And this happened in our time, when people’s names are recorded officially everywhere, etc…So you can imagine that centuries ago, names could easily pop up and change over time.

Another anecdote, still in the same village. For all me and my family knew, the next village’s car repair shop was owned by Mr “Chibrette”, since we always heard him being called that way (my parents had recently bought a house here). So, one day, my father, not finding the man in his shop went to his house and called him in a loud voice “Chibrette, Chibrette, are you here?”. And appeared the infuriated man who began to shout at my father for calling him that way.

Only later we found out that his “name” was actualy, in the local dialect, a reference to a little willy. But still, it was used by everybody (outside his presence), and once again, I think that this nickname could have stuck in other times and become a family name. Names which had originally a derogatory meaning (generally now forgotten) aren’t uncommon. For instance, a colleague of mine checked her name and found out that it was a norman name, meaning in this oil dialect : “simple-minded, idiot”.

These two (current) examples could give you an idea about how family names could have apeared in past times.

More generally, family names appeared in most of western europe during the middle ages, and became “fixed” during the late middle-ages, early renaissance, when more centralized governements, more bureaucracy, a more widespread use of written documents in public and private matters, etc…made necessary to have names which wouldn’t change.
Before that, there was already existing family names, but they weren’t universally used and besides, were subject to change. For instance, Mr Smith, from Balton, moved to some other place where he was unknown. There, he would began to be called “Balton”, after the name of the place he came from. Also, family names tended to appear first in the upper classes, in particular the bourgeoisie, for various reasons (pride in one’s own family achievments, more common use of written documents in business, for instance, etc…). Eventualy, having a family name was mandated by the authorities. But as far as I know, though it hapened quite early in France and the UK, for instance, in other european countries, such names became mandatory only much later (up to the XIX° century, in some cases, I’ve been told).

You could also note that the “noble” (because the concept of nobility develloped rather slowly) families, like everybody else, didn’t have family names, either, and were called after the name of the land they owned. Hence the “de” “of”, “von”, etc… which now seem to obviously indicate nobility, but originally had for main purpose to make clear which “Charles” you were talking about, like any other name.
Also, note that in many countries/cultures, the individual was identified by his father’s name : X son of Y, which resulted in the “son” ,“sen”, “ben”, vitch". So, the son of Rolf, Thorvald, would be called “Thorvaldsson”, while his own children would be called after him “Rolfson”. Here, there’s no fixed names.

Finally, what I wrote about refer to our current names, but since your question is more general, I would note that there has been family names much earlier in other cultures. The romans had three names, one of these being a “family name” since it refered to the “gens” (sp?) the person belonged to.

Concerning the origins of the name. Of course, the family name’s purpose was originally (before it became necessary for administrative/registration purposes) to identify precisely an individual in a community where the number of christian names was rather limited. You needed to specify which “John” you were talking about, since there could be several of them. Out of my head, some of the ways a name could be adopted (there are certainly many more) :
-The guy’s job, if, it allowed to identify him precisely. That’s the reason why there’s so much “Smith” in the UK, or “Lefebvre/Lefebure/Lefebre” (meaning “smith” in old french, though not in modern french) in France. Firstly, there was a smith in essentially every village. Secondly, there was generally only one. So, you could pinpoint precisely the individual and this job’s name has often be used as an “individualizing” name, later becoming a family name. And the fact that generally, at these times, a job was passed from father to son made even more likely that it would stuck as a family name. On the other hand, you won’t find many “Mr Glassmaker”, because such a job would have been very rare at the first place, nor many “Mr Farmer”, because since the wide majority of the population was farming, it wouldn’t have helped identifying a given person.

-The guy’s noticeable physical feature (Black, Short,…)

-The guy’s noticeable personnality trait (I’ve no such example in english out of my mind, but surely you could find many).

-Sometimes a derogatory nickname, as noted above. The french equivalent of “Bishop” is apparently generally considered as being originally a reference to a haughty attitude (rather than someone being the son of a bishop, of course). It could be true also in english.

-The guy’s location (Wood, or the extremely common french “Dupond”, “Dubois” meaning “from the bridge”," from the wood").
-The guy’s place of origin : either a nearby hamlet or a longaway town, county, or province. If you’re called after the name of an existing place, it’s likely that at the time names became fixed, one of your ancestor moved to this place (the location’s name had to be long away enough, or else, there would be too many people coming from there to identify the person, but close enough for the place’s name to be known : the guy could get the name of a province if he moved hundred of miles away, or of a hamlet if he moved only a mile away)

-A particular event or feat in the guy’s life (like the “King” mentionned above).

-A plain christian name, in particular for abandonned children whose parents were unknown : the day’s saint name was often given to the child.

-Simply the father’s name : Johnson
Actually, anything would do, as long as it allowed to know precisely to whom you were refering. And once again, before the custom and/or the law made family names widespread, this “second name” could change from one generation to another, or even during one’s lifetime.
Finally, note that name can have changed over time, the speling in particular, but also possibly the pronounciation. And also that the original meaning could make sense only in an old version of a particular dialect.

I obviously meant FROM this place. My mistake.

I read several articles showing that here in France (and I’ve no reason to assume it’s different anywhere else), the number of family names is indeed decreasing at a steady rate, due to the fact that people take only their father’s name. I can’t remember the figures, but the number of names becoming “extinct” each year is quite impressive.

On Pope: