Where did last names come from?

Where did last names come from? This question raises an interesting topic. In history, there have been many notable figures with important names. Have you ever wondered where did surnames come from?

You may have gotten your last name from a parent, but they must have also got those names from other people. Where did the concept of last names really come from? 

Last names as family names

Surnames are commonly referred to as “last names” in the English-speaking world since they appear at the end of a person’s name.

A family name is used before a person’s given name in parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Families with more than one surname (two, three, or more surnames) are widespread in Portuguese and Spanish-speaking nations.

Where did last names come from? theGrio.com
Last names (Photo by Philippe AWOUTERS on Unsplash)

Where did they come from?

Last names haven’t always been a part of people’s identities. One of the earliest civilizations to adopt last names was China. Over three thousand years ago, people there supposedly adopted family names as last names to enhance their census. 

The last names used by the Chinese were maternal surnames, which mothers passed down. Today, however, most children throughout the world adopt their father’s surname, and China also took this up.

It took a while for last names to reach Europe, and they have a Middle Ages origin. The majority of Europeans lived in tiny communities divided by vast stretches of countryside at the time. 

This meant that people from distant places hardly saw each other, and there was no confusion when using first names only. Last names were not necessary because everyone knew everyone else in the community.

Over time, people started moving around, and the small villages grew. Some would even go far distances to trade, so there was a need to differentiate people who had the same first name. 

Last name groupings 

Although there are many origins for European names, the sources can be easily grouped into four categories. These include locative names, patronymic names, nicknames, and occupational names. 

Locative last names identified people based on where they worked, lived, or where they were born. John York, for example, would be John born in New York.

Locative last names also represented the geographical features around someone’s residence. An example would be Stephen Underhill, derived from the fact that there was a hill near Stephen’s home. 

Where did last names come from? theGrio.com
Last names (Photo by Philippe AWOUTERS on Unsplash)

Patronymic names were used to identify persons as the sons or daughters of their fathers. A father named Matthew, for example, may have a daughter named Elizabeth. She would then possibly be named Elizabeth Matthews.  

Nicknames were also used as last names, and people used them to give a specific description of someone. Dwight Little, for example, would be used to refer to the small-bodied Dwight in the village. 

Last names based on occupation or rank were also common. They were based on a person’s work or social standing. Karen Baker was most likely the Karen that baked in the village. Another example is that people may have chosen Rodger Knight’s last name to represent his social status as a knight.

Where did Black people get their last names?

We now know the answer to “where did last names come from?” but where did Black people get their last names?

During colonization, Americans took up most of the European surnames. Some Americans can even trace their surnames all the way back to the areas where their ancestors came from. Many other surnames, on the other hand, have vanished over time.

Where did last names come from? theGrio.com
Last names (Photo by Chris Hardy on Unsplash)

When enslaved Africans were brought to the United States, slave owners would ignore their first and last names and give them new slave names. Their original surnames are lost to decades of slavery. 

On slave names, Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam wrote, “You must remember that slave names will keep you a slave in the eyes of the civilized world today. You have seen, and recently, that Africa and Asia will not honor you or give you any respect as long as you are called by the white man’s name.”

Formerly enslaved individuals chose their own last names following the abolishment of slavery. Some simply took up the last names of their previous owners, while others decided to use the last names of prominent people in history. 

Many people choose their last names today, especially those who prefer to match their personality or views to their names.

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