Who invented last names?

What’s In a Name? Your Link to the Past

Before surnames

‘What is in a name? Very much if the wit of man could find it out.’ Whoever penned this well known saying undoubtedly had it right – in England alone there are around 45,000 different surnames – each with a history behind it.

The sources from which names are derived are almost endless: nicknames, physical attributes, counties, trades, heraldic charges, and almost every object known to mankind. Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking at lists of these names – this is how we recognise our ancestors when we find them.

Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname.

Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past

When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further – leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard. Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen.

After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers’ names became fixed surnames – names such as Fletcher and Smith, Redhead and Swift, Green and Pickering, Wilkins and Johnson. By 1400 most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.

Most Saxon and early Celtic personal names – names such Oslaf, Oslac, Oswald, Oswin and Osway (‘Os’ meaning God) – disappeared quite quickly after the Norman invasion. It was not fashionable, and possibly not sensible either, to bear them during those times, so they fell out of use and were not often passed on as surnames. However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, including the Anglo-Saxon Cobbald (famous-bold).

New surnames continued to be formed long after 1400, and immigrants brought in new ones. Many Irish and Highland Scottish names derive from Gaelic personal names, as do those of the Welsh, who only began to adopt the English system of surnames following the union of the two countries in 1536. This is all too far back to be helpful in researching family origins, although the study of a particular surname may be useful when the investigation points to an area where it appears often.

Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past. This could be for legal reasons, or simply on a whim, but points up the fact that although the study of surnames is vital in family history research, it is all too easy to place excessive emphasis on them.

Your surname may be derived from a place, such as Lancaster, for example, or an occupation, such as Weaver, but this is not necessarily of relevance to your family history. You could be in the position of Tony Blair, whose ancestor acquired his name from adoptive or foster parents.

Another complication is that sometimes two different names can appear to be the same one, being similar in sound, but different in origin. The fairly common name of Collins is an example of this. It comes from an Irish clan name, but it is also one of several English surnames derived from the personal name Nicolas.

Thus you can see that only by tracing a particular family line, possibly back to the 14th century or beyond, will you discover which version of a surname is yours. It is more important to be aware that both surnames and forenames are subject to variations in spelling, and not only in the distant past. Standardised spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century, and even in the present day variations occur, often by accident – how much of your post has your name spelt incorrectly?

Ask John- ‘When Did People Start Using Last Names?’

In the spirit of mother’s day, I’m answering a question from one of my family members.

Unfortunately my mom did not get the chance to send me a question, but my Aunt did.

So Aunt Itzel from Crestview noticed that many people from ancient history are only known by their first names, so she asked me this:

When did people start using last names?

Aunt Itzel, that’s a good question.

It certainly helps when you have a common first name like John for instance, but when did last names come about?

The nice folks at searchforancestors.com gave us the answer.

The officials say the use of a last name is fairly new to human history, and was started to legally distinguish between two people with the same first name.

The Chinese were among the first cultures to adopt this practice nearly 5000 years ago.

Searchforancestors.com says the use of last names first appeared in Venice, Italy somewhere around the 10th or 11th centuries, and it soon spread its way through Europe.

But your last name could actually tell you a lot about your ancestors.

Surnames came from 4 different sources- the father’s name, where the family is from, an occupation or social status, or a nickname that describes your looks or personality.

Here are some examples-

‘Peterson’ means son of Peter.

The last name ‘Kirkpatrick’ means from the Church of St. Patrick.

The surname ‘Cooper’ means Barrel Maker.

And if your last name is ‘Reid’, then your ancestors had red hair.

It may be just a name, but a last name can unlock secrets to your family history.

Thanks for your question Aunt Itzel!

If any of you have a unique or interesting question, ask me!

Just send it to:

Ask John!
1801 Halstead Blvd
Tallahassee, FL 32309

or email it to [email protected]

Be sure to let me know your name and where you’re from and if you’re lucky, I’ll answer your question LIVE next Sunday!

Japan’s foreign minister will ask international media organisations to use the family name first when writing Japanese names – as is customary in the Japanese language – in an attempt to reverse a century of linguistic convention.

Taro Kono – or perhaps that should be Kono Taro – said foreign media should follow the same practice they use when reporting on other Asian countries where the family name traditionally comes first, followed by their given name. As an example, he said Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, should in future be written as Abe Shinzo.

Some see the request as part of a movement, led by the conservative Abe, to demonstrate a growing confidence in Japan’s culture and history as it prepares for more than a year in the international spotlight, first with the G20 summit, followed by the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and then the 2020 Olympics.

Kono suggested the change should be introduced in time for the G20 – being held in Osaka in late June – when visiting leaders will include Chinese president Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, whose names are written in English in the order they appear in their native languages – surname first.

“I plan to ask international media organisations to do this,” Kono told reporters, adding that domestic media with English-language services should also consider adopting the change.

The practice of putting given names first gained wide acceptance during the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Japan looked to Europe as it sought to modernise its economy and military.

Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Historically, the public appears divided on the proposal. In a 2000 poll by the cultural affairs agency, 34.9% of respondents preferred the Japanese order, while 30.6% liked the western order better, and 29.6% had no preference.

Kono, a fluent English speaker who was educated in the US, has made no secret of his desire to promote the change, saying earlier this year the foreign ministry was considering applying the name reversal to official documents. His business card introduces him as “KONO Taro”.

The education secretary, Masahiko Shibayama, is among those who support the change, saying this week the ministry would recommend a reversion to the Japanese system among public bodies, educational institutions and the media.

Shibayama cited a 2000 report by the ministry’s national language council recommending the switch, saying it reflected “respect for cultural diversity” among different countries, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun.

The chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, acknowledged the change could be problematic. “We have to consider a lot of factors, including convention,” he said.

While the surname-first approach has become commonly used in English-language textbooks for middle school pupils, Kono’s proposal could encounter resistance among Japanese companies with a strong global presence. Uniqlo, Honda and Rakuten have all adopted the western name order for company literature.

Last month, experts for the first time drew on Japanese classical literature for inspiration when deciding a name for the new imperial era, Reiwa (beautiful harmony), breaking with the tradition of drawing on characters from classical Chinese literature.

Abe said at the time the era name “symbolises our nation’s profound public culture and long tradition”, adding that Japanese values should not be allowed to “fade away”.

Mexican Last Names: Frequently Asked Questions

There is one thing that is easy to see when researching Mexican names—everyone seems to have more than one. Understanding the reason for multiple Mexican last names (apellidos) and other naming conventions will help you do your Mexican family history.

What Does a Typical Mexican Name Look Like?

When looking at Mexican names, you will often see at least two given names (for example, Maria Angelica) and two surnames (for example, Rodriguez Lopez). All put together, a full Mexican name could look like this:

Maria Angelica Rodriguez Lopez

Why Do Mexicans Have Two Last Names?

Mexicans are given two first names for a variety of reasons that range from religious to cultural and family reasons. However, when it comes to the last names, there is a traditional system for passing down a surname, or “apellido.”

In the example above, “Rodriguez Lopez” are both surnames. According to Mexican naming conventions, a person’s first surname (Rodriguez, in this case) is the father’s first surname, and the second surname (Lopez, in this case) is the mother’s first surname. This graphic illustrates how parents pass on their first surnames to their children:

Does a Woman Take Her Husband’s Last Name?

Traditionally, Mexican women don’t lose their maiden names when they marry. However, some women add their married name to the end of their other names, often separated by the word de. A married woman’s name might look like the following, with “Vasquez” being her husband’s first surname:

Maria Angelica Rodriguez Lopez de Vasquez

Why Is There a Dash (—) in Some Last Names?

Some families create compound surnames. This compounding is done if a surname was considered too common, if the family belonged to (or wanted to belong to) an aristocracy, or if the family doesn’t want to lose the family name of the mother in the next generation. A compound surname could look like this:

Maria Rodriguez-Lopez Vasquez-Garcia

Mexican immigrants might also hyphenate their names so that others who don’t understand Hispanic naming conventions don’t think the first surname is a middle name. For example, you might see this sort of name:

Maria Rodriguez-Lopez

Why Is There a De, Del, or De La in the Name?

De, del, and de la are sometimes used in Mexican last names if the name comes from a certain place or recalls a common item. For example, if someone’s surname included the word Bosque, which translates as “Forest,” a name could look like this:

Maria Angelica Rodriguez del Bosque

As mentioned previously, the prepositions could also be used to add a married name.

Mexican surnames might also appear differently on records, dropping the de (meaning “of”) or de la or even del (meaning “the”) from the name.

Why Did My Ancestors Change Their Name in the United States?

It was common for people to switch their surnames when immigrating to the United States because of the way surnames work in the United States culture. So, when researching family history, watch for immigration records and the surname switching, and search under both surnames.

What Is an Apellido?

When looking at records, it is important to remember that Mexicans don’t refer to Mexican last names as “last names.” They refer to them as “apellidos.” This word may help in your research because the translation of “last name” in Spanish does not have the same meaning.

Being armed with the two-surname knowledge can help you trace your family history, especially when you are searching through records. Now that you understand Mexican last names better, check the FamilySearch wiki, and spend some time recording your own family names on the FamilySearch Family Tree.

Discover Your Mexican Heritage

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Rachel Trotter

Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer and editor at Evalogue.Life. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com, FamilySearch.org, and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.

Latest posts by Rachel Trotter (see all)

  • New FamilySearch Feature “Unfinished Attachments” Brings New Discoveries to Your Tree – January 30, 2020
  • Discover Your Welsh Heritage – November 27, 2019
  • Learn about Your Scottish Heritage – October 5, 2019

Lesson 1: How Did Surnames Come to Be?

Activity 1. Descriptive Surnames

  • Brainstorm with the students about how surnames might have originated. Have them envision a situation in which there are two boys named John, or two girls named Mary. If they have no last names, how might their friends refer to them to distinguish one from the other? Possibilities would include physical descriptions (John with the freckles); place of residence (Mary, who lives in the woods); hobby (John, the hockey player); and names of parents (Mary, the daughter of Archibald). Explain that these are the very criteria used by people in medieval times to create second names (called bynames). In later years, as the population grew, certain bynames became permanent family names, or surnames.
  • Make a list on the board of some common modern surnames that might describe a person’s appearance or character. Perhaps there are some good examples in your own classroom.
  • Access Surname Origin List available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Instruct the students to look up the following names: Armstrong, Black, Fairchild, Giddy, Green, Merry, Noble, Sharp, Truman, and White. The meanings of the names can be added to the Descriptive Surnames chart (PDF). To find a particular name, click the letter at the top of the page. This will access a section of an alphabetical list of surnames containing the name being sought.

Activity 2. Patronymic Surnames

Another form of surname was derived from the name of a father or grandfather. This is called a patronymic surname. In medieval England, there were only about 20 popular first names (for males), the most common being John. Thomas, the son of John, might be known as Thomas Johnson (John’s son). Thomas, the son of Richard, became Thomas Richardson (Richard’s son) or simply Thomas Richards (Richard’s). Since the second name was applied to an individual, it would change from generation to generation: if John Williamson had a son, Edward, he would be called Edward Johnson (John’s son), and Edward’s son, Thomas, would be Thomas Edwardson.

  • Sometimes slight changes in spelling occurred, as in Hughes (son of Hugh), Harris (son of Harry), Anderson (son of Andrew), Henderson (son of Henry), Nixon (son of Nicholas), Simpson (son of Simon), Patterson (son of Patrick), Tennyson (son of Dennis), and Henderson (son of Henry). Jones, the Welsh version of Johnson, became the most common surname in Wales. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 (Normandy is a part of France), some people took a byname beginning with Fitz (derived from fils, which means “son” in French). An example is Fitzgerald.
  • In Scotland and Ireland, bynames often began with Mac or Mc (Gaelic for “son of” or “descendant of”), such as MacDonald.
  • Others living in Ireland had second names beginning with O’ (meaning “grandson of”), such as O’Reilly.
  • Certain names ended in -kin and were a diminutive of the father’s name. Examples of this type of byname are Tomkin (Little Thomas), Wilkin (Little William), Perkin (Little Peter), Bartlett (Little Bartholomew), and Hewitt (little Hugh).

And what about women’s names? In the male-dominated society of medieval Europe, a girl simply took her father’s surname (Richard’s daughter was Mary Richardson) until she married. Then she took her husband’s surname (Mary, wife of William Johnson, became Mary Johnson).

  • Instruct the students working in pairs to fill out the Patronymic Names chart (PDF). If you are working with younger students, you might prefer to make a list of the six types of patronymic names on the board and then call upon volunteers to suggest examples of each type.

Barbie has a last name — and people are beyond shocked

  • The Barbie Twitter account has revealed that the doll’s last name is Roberts.
  • She was apparently named Barbara Millicent Roberts when she was invented in 1959.
  • However, like many famous people, she became known only by one name.
  • Ken’s full name is apparently Ken Carson.

If you grew up playing with Barbie, chances are you assumed she didn’t have a surname. After all, she’s got by just fine with only one name since 1959.

However, fans were shocked when the brand recently announced that she does have one after all.

In honour of National Siblings Day on April 10, the Barbie account tweeted: “Happy #SiblingsDay, from the Roberts sisters!” alongside a photo of Barbie and her sisters.

Hundreds of users have commented and the post, which has been liked over 10,000 times.

—Barbie (@Barbie) April 10, 2018

A number of fans expressed their shock at the idea that Barbie had a surname.

—jackie summers (@jackiesummers34) April 11, 2018 —Dora Milaje (@BreLaRose) April 11, 2018 —ceLEAN🍇 (@cebeanybeans) April 14, 2018 —Troy McClure (@chris_tha_ninja) April 13, 2018 —S. (@LegitDirection) April 11, 2018

However, according to the Evening Standard, this isn’t the first time the name has been revealed.

Barbie creator Ruth Handler christened the doll Barbara Millicent Roberts after her own daughter of the same name, so it’s always been there.

However, she quickly became known simply as “Barbie” — in keeping with other famous people like Madonna, Adele or Prince.

Despite her surname fading from common knowledge, there is even more backstory.

In 1960 a series of Random House novels revealed Barbie’s parents’ names were George and Margaret Roberts. The family came from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin, where Barbie attended Willows High School.

Ken has a surname, too

Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, also reportedly has a surname.

The doll, introduced two years after Barbie, is apparently named Ken Carson.

Some married couples are inventing new last names to do away with ‘patriarchal custom’

It might be a week until Christmas, but if you pass by the Miraculas’ Toronto home you’d think Halloween was right around the corner.

Zuzu Miracula, a nurse, wrangles her two sons, Jupiter, 4, and 18-month-old Zephyr — her neon pink bob almost as bright as the lights of the pinball machine inside their small rowhouse in the trendy Queen West neighbourhood.

Zuzu, Zephyr, Jupiter and Geoff Miracula. Note the black bats with outstretched wings in front of their Queen West home. It’s just one sign of their love for Halloween. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

Their personal style is not the only thing that sets them apart from most young families — Zuzu Miracula and her husband Geoff have opted to invent a new last name for themselves.

“Miracula means in Latin, loosely, ‘miraculous, wonderful, strange,'” she told CBC Toronto.

“It can also refer to ‘a miraculously ugly woman,’ which we found out after — which I’m fine with!”

A ‘feminist experimental practice’

CBC Toronto tried to find out just how many people are doing the same thing, but a statement from the Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services said there is no way to track couples because an individual’s name change application is not connected to a partner’s.

Geoff Miracula holds up his name change certificate. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

Judith Taylor, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, says there’s no way to prove this “feminist experimental practice” is a trend yet, but she confirms that “the subject is very much on the minds of millennials getting married.”

Everything changes when you have kids

Although Zuzu Miracula assumed Geoff’s last name, Harvey, when they got married in 2009, the couple, who identify as feminists, say the “patriarchal custom” didn’t sit right.

But keeping her own name also felt wrong for Miracula when she thought about her future kids.

“I needed to have the same name as my children,” she said.

Geoff, Zuzu and Zephyr Miracula are part of a growing number of families inventing their own last name. (Ieva Lucs/CBC)

For years, the couple auditioned names on Facebook. Front runners were Hallow, for their love of Halloween, and Marvey, a mashup of their original names. But in the end the strange and wondrous won out.
“It was so special picking a name together. I know it sounds so cheesy but I really feel like more magical of a family together,” Zuzu Miracula said.

What’s in a name?

Both of their families were supportive of the change, but a pang of guilt hits Geoff when he thinks about his father, who died right after he was born.

“I look a lot like my dad,” Geoff said.

Geoff Miracula’s mom, left, and dad. (Submitted)

“But a name is just kind of a paper thin thing, and I think genetics is a much stronger connection,” he counters.

“When I look at a photo of him I see myself … I don’t see a name.”​

The hyphenate

Taylor, the sociology professor at U of T, says feminist groups in the latter part of the last century grappled with the name-change dilemma.

“They really thought, in their consciousness raising groups … about how to change that pattern,” she told CBC Toronto.

Judith Taylor is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

And so the hyphenate was born — both names, fully intact, but combined with a hyphen between. While popular for a time, that trend has since fallen out of fashion.
“It can be really hard to write down on a form. And then it’s hard to know what to do once gets married. Will they have four last names at that time? It never seemed to be a long-term solution, but it was a short-term equity signal,” Taylor explained.

‘Goodtimes is totally our brand’

Many last names tell the story of the family you came from. Baker, Smith, Cooper and Professor Taylor’s own name, offer a clear path back to a picture of an ancestor hard at work.
So, what if a person could choose a name that describes their own life’s work and not that of a medieval cousin?
Meet professional entertainers Lindsay and Ian Goodtimes.

Lindsay and Ian Goodtimes say their name change was organic. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

“Goodtimes is totally our brand. It’s our last name, and it is also our business,” Lindsay told CBC Toronto.
They have all their entertainment services under the “umbrella” of the Goodtimes, including several bands, a variety show, and dance and circus classes.

Lindsay and Ian Goodtimes have used their new last name as a brand for their entertainment company. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

The Goodtimes say the change came about organically. Ian was born into the Goodhue family, and when he and Lindsay started dating, friends would jokingly call them the Goodtimes — an apt description of a couple who repeatedly paused for belly laughs throughout the interview.
“We didn’t sit down one day and say what’s our new name going to be? It feels like a real last name,” said Lindsay.

Although Ian officially changed his name, for convenience and cost-effectiveness, Lindsay only assumed it. The couple’s two children were born with the new name.

Lindsay admits that she still feels nostalgic for her old last name, Milakovic, and insists she wouldn’t have agreed to just anything.

“I felt no connection to . It had to be a name that was for both of us,” said Lindsay.


Albert Lee and Natalie Borg just got married. They plan to file for a legal name change and become the Leeborgs. To them, it was a practical decision.

Natalie Borg and Albert Lee want to officially become the Leeborgs. (Khristel Stecher)

“We’re definitely not about trend,” Borg told CBC Toronto.
They describe themselves as soulmates and say this was the best way to honour both of their families.
” wanted to take the best of both families and merge them together,” said Natalie.
Lee’s family is Chinese, and Borg is Italian and Scottish. Lee said the change will be proof that they belong to the same family.
“Sometimes think we’re not together, but having that last name brings us together,” said Lee. “We’re not this Chinese guy and this white girl dating or something, we’re one couple.”

The generation gap

Borg’s mother, Pamela Borg, said she was surprised when she heard the new name announced at the wedding, but trusted that the couple knew what they were doing.

Natalie, left, and her mother Pamela at the Leeborgs’ wedding on Oct. 15. (Khristel Stecher)

She lets on that there was some concern from older relatives about the decision, but she has a philosophical take on it.
“There’s young people maybe not fully understanding the older people’s view, and the older people having a hard time with the younger people’s view … no big news there, eh?”

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