It's interesting that people from long ago were often only known for their only name, such as Socrates, Jesus, and Constantine I. But in our current society, almost everyone has a first name and a last name, with some having a middle name.

I'm curious what culture first brought forth the concept of last names. I've heard that last names were used to identify people who worked specific positions in society, like the last names Carpenter and Smith, but what about many other last names which bear no resemblance to jobs that may have been held by people? Examples, last names like Parker (was it a person that parked carriages/cars?).

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    Constantine? You mean "Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus"? Jesus? You mean "Yeshua ben Yosef"? This varies entirely by culture. There is no one answer. – Gort the Robot Mar 17 '16 at 3:36
  • @StevenBurnap Is there? At one point names must have merged from names with only one name to names with multiple features – yuritsuki Mar 17 '16 at 3:51
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    What do you mean? The Chinese have used family names from antiquity until now. The Japanese didn't get them until the 19th century. Romans had them in antiquity. Greeks didn't get them until well into the classical era. The answer is different for every culture. – Gort the Robot Mar 17 '16 at 4:05
  • Looks like a couple of different questions to me, the second one regarding the etymology of particular surnames is going to vary between cultures and is off-topic for History SE. – Steve Bird Mar 17 '16 at 7:56
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    Parker is an occupational surname. The OED has entries from the 14th century, for caretakers of woodland, deer, game and hunting parks. – WS2 Mar 19 '16 at 0:59

There is a substantial amount of information on Wikipedia, with legendary use of family names going back to 5,000 years (plus or minus) and documented use going back at least 3,600 years. There is also information on that page around the derivation of English family names from occupations, personal characteristics, etc.

Predating the use of family names are patronyms. These are used in Iceland (amongst other societies) today.


In Europe last name was an attribute of noble origin. It could be either personal "award", or name of noble progenitor. Ordinary people didn't have last name at all (only first name and father's name).

That means that last names existed nearly always, but only few had them.

As to when last names became common, it depends upon country. As far as I remember, say, Icelanders still don't have "last names". Anyway, "common last names" seem to be a relatively "new addition" for Europe.

And, yes, those "Smiths" and "Millers" got their last names because of job, but in many cases etimology is uncertain. Say, Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov's last name certainly means "break nose". But no one knows whether some of his fathers was such a bully, or that was due to Russian vernacular name of Clematis, or something else. There is no easy answer here.

  • The second sentence is not correct. I believe that was a development of the Medieval period. Also, it depends a lot on whether you count a nickname as a "last name", especially since these sometimes changed after the person's death. For Monarchs, you also have to ask if the regnal name replaces the birth name, in which case it is often the exact opposite of what you say, with the King/Queen/Pope/Emperor being the only person in the culture with a single name. – Gort the Robot Mar 17 '16 at 14:13
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    @StevenBurnap the King/Queen/Pope/Emperor being the only person in the culture with a single name Practically, King's "last name" was the name of country he ruled.This is what makes difference between antiquity and medieval: in antiquity noble name=genus; in medieval noble name=feud. – Matt Mar 17 '16 at 14:33
  • I don't really think that's the case. I've never, ever heard Kings referred to with the name of the country. At best, they might be "Louis XIV of France", but the "of France" part is a descriptor, not a name. Anyway, I think a real answer to this question would require pages of text unless it is narrowed to the scope I suspect the OP means, which is "When did English speaking countries gain family surnames." Look at the complexity here, which doesn't even get into China and Japan! Family Name – Gort the Robot Mar 17 '16 at 16:22
  • Monarchs would still have surname/family names - it's just that you only need to say "Queen Victoria" and everyone knows you mean Victoria Saxe-Coburg... Or how Princes Harry and William used Windsor when serving the in the armed forces – user13123 Mar 18 '16 at 5:37

A friend from Holland told me that he and his wife had asked permission to the Dutch Government for changing his newly born son last name to his wife's. They weren't allowed to the change. The reason was that the name 'Bock' has a strong meanning (like the English MF), and it was chossen jokingly by his ancestors when last names were imposed to the Duch by the French. Also a friend from Island told me that even though they have last names, their phone books were ordered by first name (he was in all seriousness so I believed him). Here in Mexico we use both paternal and maternal last names.

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    This doesn't answer the question. – MCW Mar 21 '16 at 18:41

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