Ever wondered what is a surname and how did it emerge? A surname refers to the last name or the family name of a person. It is a common factor among all the members of a family and is passed down from generation to generation. Different surnames reveal different things about the ancestry of a person. While some reflect the place where his family lived or how his ancestors looked, there are others that would reveal the family occupation of the person. Though it might seem strange, surnames can answer a lot of questions related to your ancestors. Read on to know more about the history and origin of surname.
Interesting Information On Background Of Surnames
The history of surnames dates back to 5000 years ago. The very first use of surnames was to legally distinguish two people with similar names. It might sound strange, but when surnames first came to use, they were not passed down from one generation to the other. Chinese were the initiators of hereditary surnames some 5000 years ago. Europeans upheld the tradition in 10th and 11th century AD. The custom of using surnames was first implemented upon by the nobility and the upper class gentry. Soon, the practice spread all over Europe and people of all classes started using surnames.
Surnames, popularly, have been derived from patronymics i.e. from the name of the father. An example of such a surname is Johnson, which would literally mean 'the son of John'. Some of the surnames were metronymic in nature i.e. they were derived from the mother's given name, such as in Catling, Marguerite or Dyott. Yet another method of establishing surnames was on the basis of the name of the place, such as KirkPatrick - after Church (kirk) of St. Patrick. People also had surnames on the basis of their occupation, such as Smith or Carpenter in the British Isles or Schmidt or Zimmerman in Germany.
The origin of surnames also has its roots in the nickname of a person - such as Rothchild. In some case, surnames were derived from the nature of the person. For instance, a gentle person came to be known by the surname of Lamb became, while for a cunning person, Fox was considered apt. Physical descriptions of a person were also responsible for the emergence of a particular surname, such as Blake or Hoch. Some surnames emerged from anectodotal events - such as Death and Leggatt, seasons - such as Winter and Spring, and even status - such as Bachelor, Knight and Squire.
Another interesting fact is that, till 19th century, the same surname was spelled differently by different people. There were only a few literate people in a society during that time. Most of the people spelled the surname as they heard it being pronounced by a person. Hence, same surnames often had different spelling. Just like the surname itself, the spellings evolved with time. It was only, in the 20th century, that the spellings for surnames became constant and same spellings were used in all the records. So if you want to have a look at the history of the emergence of your surname, make sure to try different spellings!