Where do so many last names come from?

I probably haven’t thought this out in sufficient detail, but here goes…

How did we end up with so many last names? At least for most Europeans, everyone takes the last name of one of their parents. If that were consistently applied then there would be a fairly constant number of last names, with a lot more people with the same last name as time went on. But a look at any big city telephone book the makes me think that’s not so.

I know sometimes family lines ‘die out’ and also sometimes people change their last name when immigrating, to something more in line with local nomenclature. But I can’t say I’ve heard much about anyone just ‘inventing’ a new and unique last name.

What other things cause the number of names to grow?

Does it really grow? I ask because over here it’s a well known fact that the number of names is actually dwindling with each new generation.

Only immigration could cause the number of family names to grow.

There are a lot of them only because there were a huge number of family names to begin with.

That’s not true: people can change their last names to new one. However, it would be true that generally the number of last names declines without immigrations, since it would be less common for people to adopt a new last name, unused by anyone else, that fora family name to die out.

In a country like the US, many people have the “same” last name, just in different langauges. All the occupational names (Cooper, Wheeler, etc) have analogs in other languages and those people carry those names to the US, too.

Many names are also place names-- So-and-so from Such-and-Such city/town/region. Again, this might not be obvious in different languages.

OTOH, something like 40% of the people in Vietnam have the surname Nguyen

One thing I’d wonder about would be last name ‘driftage’… especially among relatively uneducated people… someone tries to pass along his family name to the kid and doesn’t get it quite right, kid ends up liking the variant and going by it. Or is that the sort of thing that only happens with given names? :slight_smile:

Well, it definitely happens when families move to a new country with a different language. Sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. My father’s parents were from Germany; in the midst of WWI it was not the best idea in the world to have a name that was readily recognizable as German, so they changed to an English version. My husband’s family is from one of the former Soviet republics. Their (and now my) last name was of course originally written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and some of the letters have no exact equal in the western alphabet or in English pronunciation.

This has in fact happened in my family. There is now another branch of my family who’s last name differs by a single vowel. We even know which familiy member made the mistake (a great, great uncle).

Stable family names is only a recent concept in some nations. Iceland still uses patronyms.

My own grandfather left Norway under his patronym and arrived in the US with his father’s patronym. He used both names at times in the US. So my family name is only stable for a whopping 3 generations.

Say a Norwegian family of 150 years ago has 5 sons, they name their sons after various ancestors and such. That’s 5 last names for the sons’ kids. In some of my lineages, German first names crept in and these became patronyms and possibly stable last names in other branches.

And that’s just patronym-based last names. In Norway at the time, people were also starting to use farm and other place names as well as occupations. So it went from only a few, better-off, city dwellers using permanent family names to thousands in use within a hundred years.

Likewise. There are several variants on the spelling our last name in our extended family: Seaney (the one most often encountered), Seney, Seeney, and even Seenea. There are additional spellings on the page that last link takes you to.

At one time the vast majority of people could not write. When their family names were at last put to paper by some learned scribe, it would have been kinda pointless to ask 'em how they spelled their name. So, the various persons doing the recording just spelled it however it occured to them at the moment. Even within a single document, a person’s name might have several different spellings.

My last name, as attached to a person, is only 400 years old, and all people with my last name are descended from the same individual who flourished in the mid 1600’s. Before taking the esteemed Mercotan surname I wield today, he was a simple Llurdiax. :wink:

Even so, besides Mercotan, we have variations like Mercoteen, Mercotyn, Mercotijn, Marcotten, Merkotin, and even Merkin, to name but a few.

Endless variety!

It happened in my mom’s family - her grandfather’s family’s name back in Poland was “Cieslak” (like Moe on the Simpsons), but as several members came over at different times, and some Americanized it, and since my great-grandpa was probably illiterate some of his own kids spelled it differently, there ended up being about half a dozen different spellings.

On the new names front - new ones do occasionally come about. I’ve got a friend whose parents combined parts of their last names when they got married - I don’t want to say her real last name (as there are only 4 people in the world using it), but imagine that “Clinton” and “Reagan” became “Clingan” and you’ve got the general idea.

My great-grandmother was Anne Elizabeth Higbee. We’ve traced her ancestors back to John Higbed of Invighoe Parish, England. John Higbed’s descendants number in the thousands, and include Higbees, Higbys, and Higbies.

My great-grandfather was James Champlin Peirce. His ancestors go back to a group of men-at-arms for a Lord Percy, and who became known as Percy’s men. Descendants of that group are known today as Peirce, Pierce, and Pearce.

(Interestingly, my grandfather Peirce, a widower, remarried, and his new wife was a Pearce!)

For sake of the unfamiliar-with-Qadgop, I will point out that our actual last name is neither Mercotan nor anything resembling it. And Llurdiax is so obscure a reference that I’ll be astounded if anyone but me gets it… and I only get it because he used the same reference to name one of our computers. :rolleyes:

It’s not obscure to those of us with a sufficiently advanced Visualization of the Cosmic All, which I suspect is a significant fraction of the SDMB readership.

I always knew that an adequate background in the biochemistry of flour would serve to benefit not only myself but the whole universe! :stuck_out_tongue:


My great great grandfather was a twin. When they (and their quite large families) wanted to immigrate to the US (from Ireland) they were told only x number of people in the family could come over. So, one brother kept the original last name of McLean and the other changed his to McLain. Then they all came over together.

I don’t know which name lasted for my bloodline, this is on my great grandmother’s side… who married a man named Bohn and our names drifted German down the line.

dtilque, Poly, I love you guys! <sniff>

Chalk me up as another one who knows the divergence point for his name. My surname, Wooley, come from the descriptive for the hair of a ggggg-X grandparent who was a freedman in the south. It was originally spelled with two ‘L’s’: Woolley. But four generations back my ancestor was filling out a government form and left off an ‘L’ because (as the family history has it) he had to write it too many times and he figured he’d make it easier by leaving off the extra letter and making it shorter. Figures, given my relations.

Oh, and I have a pal who’s family came over from Hungary. The original name was ‘Hudack’ but it was thought to be too ‘Hungarian’ so they changed it to ‘Hoodock’.

Yeah, confuses me, too.

Some name variations come not from a mistake, but from a family quarrel. I know two families whose grandpa started spelling his name differently because of a dustup with great-grandpa. So, grandpa Stamps became Stamp, and grandpa Matzinger became Motsinger. These were grandpas of friends of mine, not me.

In South-East Asian families, the name of one’s father is still used as a surname. However, as families have moved to the west, and western convention has led to confusion as to who’s related to whom, we’ve tended to adopt the name of an ancestor from a few generations ago as a surname, but we tend to use our father’s first name as a middle name. Hence, my surname, is actually the first name of my great-great-grandfather, and my middle name is my father’s first name. My mother’s maiden name, is actually the name of her grandfather, my grandfather (mother’s father) having used the South-East Asian tradition himself, but on emigration westwards, having used western convention.