The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Family name

A family name, or surname, is that part of a person's name that indicates to what family he or she belongs. In English one's family name is generally written after one's given name, leading to the term last name.

The word surname is "name" prefixed by the French word sur, which derives from Latin super. It was sometimes spelled sirname and sirename because of the paternal origin.

In the 19th century, Francis Galton published a statistical study of the extinction of family names. See Galton-Watson process for an account of some of the mathematics.

The origin of family names is area-dependent. In Europe, family names indicated some feature of a person, such as their occupation, their place of origin, their social status or their parent's name: "Robert Smith" would be short for "Robert the smith"; "Mary Windsor" would be short for "Mary of Windsor", "Mark Johnson" would be short for "Mark, son of John", "Richard Freeman" would be "Richard the freeman", etc.

In the Americas, the family names of many black people have their origins in slave names. It should be noted that many of these names were chosen by freed slaves themselves, who sometimes chose the name of their former master. Some people, such as Muhammad Ali, have chosen to change their name rather than live with a name thought to have been given by a slave owner.

Family names are not universal. In particular, Tibetans and Javanese often do not use a family name — well-known people lacking a family name include Suharto and Sukarno (see Indonesian names). Also, many royal families do not use family names.

It is a common practice for a woman to change her family name to that of her husband when she marries. Some countries (for example Japan) do not allow a wife to have a different family name than her husband. Other countries permit wives to have a different name, but provide incentives for changing. Still other countries allow for a man to take the wife's name. Some people choose to take a double-barrelled name, combining both family names, joined by a hyphen.


English- and French-speaking countries

In English-, Dutch-, German- and French-speaking countries (e.g., U.S., UK, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany), people often have two or more given names (first and middle), and the family name goes at the end, which is why it's sometimes called a "last name." The last name is usually the father's family name, although in the United Kingdom the parents are legally free to choose any surname when the child's birth is registered.

Supposedly, all English surnames fall into just four types:

  • Occupations (e.g. Smith, Baker)
  • Personal characteristics (e.g. Short, Brown, Goodman)
  • Places & geographical features (e.g. Scott, Hill, Rivers)
  • Ancestry, often based on a first name (e.g. Richardson, James) or - if we include surnames of Scottish origin - clan (e.g. Macdonald).

These surname types describe respectively the occupation, personal characteristics, location/origin, and ancestry (typically father's name) of the distant ancestor to whom the surname was first applied. Of course, the original meaning of the name may no longer be obvious in modern English. Arguably there is also a much smaller fifth category of names relating to religion, though some of these are also occupations (e.g. Bishop).

Double-barrelled names are fairly frequent in English-speaking countries.

It has long been the custom for women to give up their family name (called the birth name or maiden name) upon marriage, and to use their husband's last name in its place. In recent years, more women have chosen to keep their birth name when they are married. Still, even in families where the wife has kept her birth name, parents often choose to give their children their father's family name.

It is extremely rare for men in Western countries to take the name of their wives; this was chiefly done in the Middle Ages, when the man was from a low-born family and was marrying an only daughter, and was thus designated to carry on his wife's family name. In the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, bequests were sometimes made contingent upon a man changing (or hyphenating) his name, so that the name of the legator continued. Now, some men choose to take their wives' names rather than the reverse. A married couple may also choose a new last name rather than that of either the husband or the wife.

In civil law jurisdictions such as France or Quebec, name change upon marriage is no longer recognized. Those who wish to change their name upon marriage must follow the same legal procedure as would be used under any other circumstance. Otherwise, although one may use a married name, one's legal name remains unchanged.

In some jurisdictions, contrariwise, it used to be the case that the woman's legal name changed automatically upon marriage. This is no longer the case in most jurisdictions; now, women may easily change to their married name, though it is no longer automatic. In some jurisdictions, civil rights lawsuits were used to change the law so that men could easily change to a married name, too.

In France, until January 1, 2005, children were required by law to take the surname of their father. From this date, article 311-21 of the French Civil code permits parents to give their children either the name of their father, mother, or a hyphenation of both - although no more than two names can be hyphenatated. In cases of disagreement the father's name applies [1]. This brought France into line with a 1978 declaration by the Council of Europe requiring member governments to take measures to adopt equality of rights in the transmission of family names, a measure that was echoed by the United Nations in 1979. Similar measures were adopted by Germany (1976), Sweden (1982), Denmark (1983) and Spain (in 1999).


Many surnames in Ireland of Gaelic origin derive from either father's or ancestor's names; nicknames; or descriptive names. In the first group can be placed surnames such as Mac Murrough, Maguire, MacDermott, MacCarthy (all derived from father's names) or O'Brian, O'Neill, O'Donnell, O'Toole (ancestral names).

Gaelic surnames derived from nicknames include Docherty (from "dortach", hurtful), Garvery ("garbh", rough or nasty), Manton ("mantach", toothless), Duffy ("dubh", black, as in black hair), Bane ("ban", white, as in white hair), Finn ("fionn", fair, as in fair or blonde hair), Kennedy ("cennidie", ugly head).

Descriptive Gaelic surnames include Carr ("gearr", short or small), Joyce/Seoige (from the Welsh word, "sais", meaning Saxon or English), Kearney ("ceithearnach", footsolider), Brehony ("mac an Brehon", son of the judge), Ward ("mac an Bard", son of the bard).

In contrast to England, very few Gaelic surnames are derived from placenames.

In areas where certain family names are extremely common, extra names are added that sometimes follow this archaic pattern. In Ireland, for example, where "Murphy" is an exceedingly common name, particular Murphy families or extended families are nicknamed, so that Denis Murphy's family were called "The Weavers" and Denis himself was called Denis "The Weaver" Murphy. see also: O'Hay

For much the same reason, nicknames (the Fada Burkes, i.e. the long/tall Burkes), father's names (John Morrissey Ned) or mother's maiden name (Kennedy becoming Kennedy-Lydon) can become coloquial or legal surnames. The Irish family of de Courcy Ireland became so-named to distinguish them from their cousins who moved to France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In addition to all this, Irish speaking areas still follow the old tradition of naming themselves after their father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on. Examples include: Mike Bartly Pat Reilly (i.e, Mike son of Bartholomew son of Pat Reilly), John Michel John Oge Pat Breanach (John son of Michael son of young John son of Pat Breanach), Tom Paddy-Joe Seoige (Tom son of Paddy-Joe Seoige), Mary Bartly Mike Walsh (Mary daughter of Bartly son of Mike Walsh), and so on. Even in English-speaking areas, especially in rural districts, something of this tradition continues.

Irish surname prefixes:

Mac: Mac is Irish for son.

Mac Gilla: Son of the devotee of a saint, or, more properly, son of a man whose name was the likes of Gilla Padraigh, Gilla Christ, (Mac) Gilla Bridge, and so on. An equivalent would be the use of St. George and St. John as forenames in England in the 18th and 19th century.

Mael: In Pagan times this was expressed as Mug, as in the case of Mug Nuada . The literal expression of this is "slave of Nuada". Slave should be seen in the same sense as "devotee". In the Christian era the word Mael was used in its place for given names such as Mael Bridget, Mael Padraig, Mael Sechlainn, Mael Martain, and so on. In later times, some of these given names evolved into surnames (O Mael Sechlainn, Mac Mael Martain, etc).

Fitz: Fitz is a Norman-French word derived from the Latin word, fils, meaning son of. It was used as a patronymic by thousands of men in the early Norman period in Ireland (fitz Stephen, fitz Richard, fitz Robert, fitz William) and only on some occasions did it become used as an actual surname, the most famous example being the FitzGerald Earls of Kildare . Yet well into the 17th and 18th century it was used in certain areas dominated by the Old English of Ireland in its original form, as a patronymic. The Tribes of Galway were especially good at conserving this form, with examples such as John fitz John Bodkin, Michael Lynch fitz Arthur, and so on, being used even as late as the early 1800's.

Despite claims to the contrary, the use of Fitz in a surname does not, and never did, denote illigitimacy.

O: Originally 'hua', meaning grandson, or descendant of, a given person. For example, the ancestor of the O'Brian clan , Brian Boru (937-1014) was known in his lifetime as Brian mac Lorcan mac Cennedie, i.e., Brian the son of Lorcan the son of Cenneedie. Not till the time of his grandsons and great-gransons was the name O'Brian used as a surname, used to denote descent from an illustrious ancestor.

Uí: Originally used not as part of a surname but to denote related members of a dynasty or kin-group , all descended from a particular person, i.e., the Uí Neill , the Uí Censellagh . Nowadays sometimes used in place of O. Pronounced as Uoo.

Ní: From the Irish word for daughter, íníon, and compressed into Ní. Pronounced as nee.

Bean: Wife. Pronounced as baan.

Spain and Hispanic areas

Main article: Spanish names

In mediaeval times, a patronymic system similar to the one still used in Iceland emerged. For example, Álvaro son of Rodrigo would be named Álvaro Rodríguez. His son Juan would not be named Juan Rodríguez, but Juan Álvarez. Over time many of these patronymics became family names and are some of the most common names in the Spanish-speaking world. Other sources of surnames are personal appearance or habit: Delgado (thin), Moreno (dark); occupations: Molina (miller), Guerrero (warrior); geographic location or ethnicity: Alemán (German).

In Spain and countries of Hispanic culture (former Spanish colonies), each person has two family names (although in some situtations only the first is used): the first is the first (paternal) family name of the father; the second is the first family name of the mother; Depending on the country, these may or may not be linked by the conjunction "y" (and) or "de" (of). When a woman marries, she would traditionally either add her husband's paternal surname to the end of her name or, more commonly, replace her maternal surname with her husbands paternal surname often linked with "de". Thus, Ana García Díaz, upon marrying Juan Guerrero Macías, would be known as Ana García Díaz de Guerrero or, more commonly, Ana García de Guerrero. Their children would carry the surnames Guerrero García. In present day Spain, women upon marrying keep their two family names intact.

Portugal and Brazil

The Portuguese position is the reverse of the Spanish one. Each person has at least two family names: the first is the second family name of the mother; the second is the second family name of the father. A person can have up to six names (two first names and four surnames - he or she may have two names from the mother and two from the father). In Brazil the rule is the same except that it is now very common for a person to have only one family name: the second family name of the father. In the ancient ages the patronymicum was commonly used - surnames like Gonçalves (son of Gonçalo), Fernandes (son of Fernando), Nunes (son of Nuno) and many more are used today as usual family names.


Main article: Naming conventions of Iceland

In Iceland, most people have no family name; a person's last name is a patronymic, i.e., is a modified form of the father's first name or, sometimes, the mother's. For example, when a man called Karl has a daughter called Anna and a son called Magnús, their names will be Anna Karlsdóttir ("daughter of Karl") and Magnús Karlsson ("son of Karl").


In Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden, family names often, but certainly not always, originate from a patronymic. These family names are today passed on similarly to family names in other western countries. Karlsson for example means Karl's son, but today Karlsson is a family name, and a person's father doesn't have to be called Karl if he or she has the surname Karlsson. In Denmark and Norway family names ending with -sen are common. Karlsen for example means Karl's son. Noble persons in Sweden often have family names referring to their coat of arms, such as in Cederqvist ("cedar-twig") and Stiernhielm ("star-helmet"), the spelling is obsolete in both cases, but as names remains unchanged. Before the 19th century there was the same system in Scandinavia as in Iceland today, but not everyone had a patronymic. People from the middle classes, particulary artisans and town dwellers, adopted names in a similar fashion to that of the nobelity. Family names such as Bergman, Holmberg, Lindgren, Sandström and Åkerlund were quite frequent and remain common today. The same is true for similar Norwegian and Danish names.

The Netherlands

Many Dutch names start with a prefix like "van" (from), "de" (the), "der" (of the), "van de" (from the), "in het" (in the). Examples are "de Groot" (the great), "van Rijn" (from Rhine). These prefixes are normally not spelled with a capital. In name directories, the prefixes are always ignored for sorting.

India and Indonesia

Main articles: Indian family name, Indonesian names

Similar patronymic customs exist in some parts of India and Indonesia. However, many Indians (from India) living in English-speaking countries give up on this tradition because many English speakers so consistently misunderstand the custom; therefore many Indian fathers simply follow the English-speaking custom to pass on their last name instead of their first.


In most of Ethiopia, a patronymic custom exists. A child is given the father's exact first name as their surname.

Russia and Ukraine

In Russia, names are typically written with both family name and patronymic, a modified version of the father's name. For example, in the name "Lev Ivanovich Chekhov," "Chekhov" is the family name or surname whereas "Ivanovich" is the patronymic; we can infer that Lev's father was named "Ivan". The same is true in Ukraine. A different suffix is used for women's names. Where a son whose father's name is Ivan will be called Ivanovich, a daughter will be called Ivanovna.

China, Hungary, Japan, and Korea

Main articles: Chinese family name, Korean name#Family names and Japanese name

In other cultures, like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Hungarian, the family name is placed before the given names. So the terms "first name" and "last name" can carry opposite meanings when used outside of English speaking cultures. In many non-English-speaking countries, names are referred to as surname and given name to avoid ambiguity. Some Chinese add a Christian name in front of their Chinese name, so an example would be is Martin LEE Chu-ming. In addition, many Chinese Americans have an English name which is commonly used and a Chinese name which is used as a middle name, that is to say, Martin Chu-ming Lee. Chinese living in the US are willing to rearrange their names when written in English to avoid misunderstanding. However, no one in China would rearrange Mao Zedong into Zedong Mao in English writings. Korean and Vietnamese names are generally written in Asian order in English. In general, names of contemporary Japanese individuals are usually written in Western order while names of Japanese historical figures are usually written in East Asian order. Names of Hungarian individuals are reversed in English.

In English writings originating from non-English cultures (e.g. English newspapers in China), the surname is often written with all capital letters to avoid being mistaken as the middle name: "Martin LEE Chu-ming" (this practice is common on the Internet), or in small capitals (except the first letter), as "Martin LEE Chu-ming" (this is more common in books) or AKUTAGAWA, Ryunosuke to make clear which one is the family name, particularly often in mass-media reporting international events like the Olympic Games. The CIA World Factbook stated that "The Factbook capitalizes the surname or family name of individuals for the convenience of [their] users who are faced with a world of different cultures and naming conventions." On the contrary, the English Wikipedia follows a strict guideline on not to use all capital family names (the Esperanto Wikipedia, for example, often capitalizes family names regardless of the country of origin of the person who bears the name). As a result, non-English names appearing in Wikipedia articles are ambiguous to most laymen. For example, Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing might be mistaken as Mr. Wing by readers unaware of Chinese naming conventions.

In Japan, a convention that a man uses his wife's family name if the wife is an only child is sometimes observed. A similar tradition called ru zhui (入贅) is common among Chinese when the bride's family is wealthy and has no son but wants the heir to pass on their assets under the same family name. It is worth noting that the Chinese character zhui (贅) carries a money radical (貝), which implies that this tradition was originally based on financial reasons. All their offspring will carry the mother's family name. Usually the groom or his family would not agree with such arrangement if he were the first born who has an obligation to carry his own ancestor's name. In such situation, a compromise may be reached in that the first male child would carry the mother's family name while the other offspring carry the father's family name. The tradition is still in use in many Chinese communities outside of mainland China. Under Mao Zedong's communist rule, Chinese citizens had no personal assets to pass to their heirs therefore such traditions became unnecessary. With Chinese economic reform, it is uncertain if such tradition returned to China.

In Japan, women surrender their surnames upon marriage, and use the surnames of their husbands. In Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea and Taiwan, women would keep their own surnames, while the family as a whole would be referred by the surnames of the husbands.

In Hong Kong, some women would be known to the public with the surnames of their husbands preceding their own surnames, such as Anson Chan Fang On Sang. Anson is an English given name, On Sang is the given name in Chinese, Chan is the surname of Anson's husband, and Fang is her own surname. A name change on legal documents is not a must.

In Macau, some people have their names in Portuguese spelt with some Portuguese style, such as Carlos do Rosario Tchiang.

Chinese women in Canada, especially Hongkongers in Toronto, would preserve their maiden names before the surnames of their husbands when written in English, for instance Rosa Chan Leung, where Chan is the maiden name, and Leung is the surname of the husband.

Romanian names

In Romania family names traditionally have an English-like usage: a child inherits his father's family name, and a wife takes her husband's last name. There are however exceptions and social pressure to follow this tradition is not particularly strong in most families.

Romanian names' etymologies are mixed. Sometimes, family names denote some ancestor's occupation (for example Butnaru meaning 'barrel-maker'), sometimes a genitor's name - notably, there are common family names deriving from a woman's name, hence the mother's name (e.g. Amarandei, '[son or daughter]-of-[S]maranda').

It should be noted that the first name/last name distinction is not clear in Romanian culture. While the ordering of given name first, family name second is always used in media, from literature to television, the opposite order is used in all official documents, ostensibly for filing purposes. Since bureaucracy is very pervasive in Romania, a Romanian will often instinctively start with his family name when introducing himself, especially in any 'official' context (this includes, for example, a student signing an occasional test paper in school). You will not, however, hear someone refer to a poet or a politician this way.

In Romanian the words "nume de familie" (literally "family name") and "prenume" (for one's given name) are used instead of the first/second name convention.

Jewish names

Until a few hundred years ago, Jews followed no tradition of family names, but used patronymics within the synagogue, and matronymics in other venues. For example, a boy named Joseph of a father named Isaac would be called to the Torah as Joseph ben Isaac. That same boy of a mother named Rachel would be known in business as Joseph ben Rachel. A male used the Hebrew word "ben" (son) and a female "bat" (daughter).

When northern European countries legislated that Jews required "proper" surnames, Jews were left with a number of options. Many Jews (particularly in Austria, Prussia and Russia) were forced to adopt Germanic names. Joseph II issued a law in 1787 which assumed that all Jews were to adopt German names. The city mayors were to chose the name for every Jewish family. For names related to precious metals and flowers a fee was gathered, the free of charge surnames were usually connected to animals and common metals. Many took Yiddish names derived from occupation (e.g. Goldstein, 'Gold-smith'), from their father (e.g. Jacobson), or from location (e.g. Berliner, Warszawski or Pinsker).

In Prussia special military commissions were created to chose the names. It became common that the poorer Jews were forced to adopt derogatory, offensive or simply bizarre names. Among those created by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann were:

  • Ochsenschwanz - Oxtail
  • Temperaturwechsel - Temperatureglitch
  • Kanalgeruch - Sewerstink
  • Singmirwas - Singmesomething

The Jews of Poland adopted names much earlier. Those who were adopted by a szlachta family usually changed the name to that of the family. Christened Jews usually adopted either a common Polish name or a name created after the month of their baptism (that's why many Frankists adopted the name Majewski - after the month of May in 1759).

Western Jews today may have complete Western names as well as Jewish names, reflecting the ancient patronymic/matronymic pattern, for use only in the synagogue.

Polish names

In Poland and most of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the surnames first appeared in late Middle Ages. Initially their purpose was to denote the differences between various people living in the same town or village and bearing the same name. Initially the surnames used were simple nouns denoting the occupation (Karczmarz - Innkeeper, Kowal - Blacksmith, Bednarczyk - Young Cooper), descent (patronymic names like Szczepaniak - Son of Szczepan, Józefski - Son of Józef or Kaźmirkiewicz - Son of Kazimierz) or a feature (Nowak - the new one, Biały - the pale one, Mazur the one from Masovia or Wielgus - the big one).

Since the early 16th century geographical names became common, especially among the szlachta. Initially the surnames were in a form of Jan z Kolna (meaning John of Kolno ), later most of the surnames were changed to adjective forms (Jakub Wiślicki - James of Wisła, Zbigniew Oleśnicki - Zbigniew of Oleśnica) with suffixes -ski, -cki and -dzki. Names formed this way are still adjectives grammatically, and therefore - as all Polish adjectives - change their form depending on gender. So we have Mr Jan Kowalski and Ms Maria Kowalska (and Kowalscy in plural).

As names with -ski/cki/dzki suffix became associated with noble origin, many people from lower classes successively changed their surnames to fit this pattern. This produced large amounts of Kowalskis, Bednarskis, Kaczmarskis and so on. Today most Polish speakers would not necessarily know about noble associations of -ski endings, but such names still "sound somehow better".

A separate class of surnames is constituted by names derived of the names of szlachtas coats of arms. These are used either as separate names or the first part of a double-barrelled name. This way persons named Jan Nieczuja and Krzysztof Nieczuja-Machocki might be related. Similarly, after World War I and World War II many members of the underground organizations adopted their war-time pseudonyms as the first part of their surnames. This way Edward Rydz became the later Marshal of Poland Edward Śmigły-Rydz and Jan Nowak became Jan Nowak-Jeziorański.

See also

External links

Last updated: 08-23-2005 00:12:50
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46