Last Name Meanings and Origins: Surname Etymology

The etymology of last names is interesting to anyone who wants to learn more about his or her family or history. Last names are often referred to as surnames, and they can offer clues about your ancestors and their lives.

Last Name Meanings and Origins: Surname Etymology Last Name Meanings and Origins: Surname Etymology
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History of Last Names

The etymology of last names tells us that last names, family names, or surnames were not always a part of a person's name. In fact, do you ever hear of Ancient Egyptians with last names? Cleopatra, Ptolemy, and Imhotep only had one name. Modern scholars use Roman numerals to differentiate between the sons and the fathers, such as Tuthmosis II and Tuthmosis III.

Why We Need Last Names

In small civilizations, last names were not necessary because it was unusual to have a large number of people bearing the same given name ("first name"). However, as time went on, names became more common.

As more towns started to gain more people with the same names, the need for last names became apparent. If there were five Johns in one town, people needed to describe which John they were talking about.

Last Names for Honor

The Chinese began to use surnames about 5,000 years ago. They wanted to honor their forebears by use of the name. However, Chinese surnames come first instead of last.

Gradually, the rest of the world started to use surnames as well. In the 10th and 11th century, Venice began using the surname method. Slowly after that, the need for surnames or last names continued to grow worldwide.

Origin of Surnames

Understanding last name etymology involves tracing the meaning behind the names commonly used by different cultures and nationalities. Most are based on specific occupations, personality characteristics, and other descriptive traits.

Last Names Based on Occupation

Some surnames come directly from the occupation of the first person who had the name. You can easily imagine how residents in a small town would need to differentiate between George the Baker and George the Butcher. Adding the occupation makes it clear. Here's George Baker, and there's George Butcher.

The following names are based on occupation:

  • Taylor - after "tailor," someone who makes clothing
  • Brewer - after someone who brews beer
  • Mason - after someone who builds with stone
  • Carpenter - after a person who builds with wood
  • Fletcher - after a person who makes feathered arrows
  • Smith - after someone who is a blacksmith
  • Miller - after someone who grinds grain
  • Tanner - after a person who tans, or preserves, leather
  • Draper - after someone who makes or sells cloth
  • Fisher - after a person who fishes
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Place-Based Surnames

Other surnames related to place. Also called "toponymic surnames," these names made it clear exactly which person you were talking about by describing where that person lived or where they came from.

  • Dale - someone who lived in a wide valley
  • Forrest - a person who lived in the forest
  • Milford - a person who lived near a mill on a ford
  • Bell - someone who lived close to the town's bell
  • Brook - someone who lived near a running stream
  • Underhill - a person who lived under or at the base of a hill
  • Atwood - a person who lived in the woods
  • Banks - someone who lived near a bank of land
  • Abbey - someone who lived near an abbey
  • Moore - a person who lived on a moor or open marsh land
  • Moorhead - a person who lived at the head of a moor

Last Names With Personal Characteristics

People also used last names to describe someone's personality or physical appearance. In this way, John with the red hair could be differentiated from John with the black hair. Many names offer a clue about the personal characteristics of your ancestors:

  • Stout - someone who has a sturdy build
  • Strong - a person of great physical strength
  • Young - someone who is not yet old, possibility used to differentiate between generations
  • Short - a person whose height is less than average
  • Long - a tall person
  • Black - someone with black hair
  • Brown - someone with brown hair
  • Stern - a person who is serious
  • Swift - a fast person

Last Names Showing Lineage

Last names can also communicate family connections. Often, this would be used for the second or subsequent generation, referring to a father's first name or occupation. These types of last names are also called patronymic surnames.

  • Johnson - son of John
  • Thompson - son of Thomas
  • Jackson - son of Jack
  • Smithson - son of the smith
  • Larson - son of Lars
  • Nelson - son of Nels
  • Stevenson - son of Steven
  • Hansen - son of Hans
  • Oleson - son of Ole
  • Richardson - son of Richard
  • O'Sullivan - son of Sullivan
  • O'Reilly - son of Reilly
  • McArthur - son of Arthur
  • Mackenzie - son of Kenneth
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Surnames Indicating Royalty or Importance

Surnames could also indicate that someone was from a royal family or had the blessing of royalty. Alternatively, it could be an indication that the person had a connection to other important people in the community, such as religious leaders.

  • Prince - someone associated with the prince
  • Abbott - a person associated with an abbott
  • Steward - someone appointed by royalty to act on the royal's behalf
  • King - a person associated with the king
  • Fitzroy - someone who was an illegitimate son of a king
  • Lord - a person associated with a lord
  • Rector - an administrative leader in the church
  • Dean - a cleric with a position of authority in the church
  • Viceroy - similar to Steward, someone acting on the behalf of royalty
  • Duke - a person associated with a duke

Remember the Role of Language

Most of the names listed here have a basis in the English language, but English speakers were not the only ones using last names. Don't forget that you may need to translate your name into another language, such as French, Japanese, Spanish, or Aramaic, to know the real meaning behind it.