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.
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 3:36
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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.
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 4:05
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    Minimal research will reveal partial answers - Parker. Although @StevenBurnap is technically correct, I wonder if anyone can improve on the answer he provided, "The Chinese have used family names from antiquity" - and whether anyone can provide evidence (rather than assertion). That would answer the question, unless you revise to "Which Western culture first used family names" - to which the answer is probably "Roman".
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 11:58
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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
    Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 0:59
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    As soon as you have two people with the same name in a group you need second names for them. So you'd have John Mason and John Fisher if you use jobs, or Jane Essex and Jane Scott if you use origin to differentiate, then there's nicknames like Redhead or Swift or Little.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 12:56

5 Answers 5


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.

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    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.
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 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
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 14:33
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    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
    – user15620
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 16:22
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    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
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 5:37
  • @user13123 Princes William and Harry actually used "Wales" - not Windsor!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented May 18, 2021 at 10:10

James C. Scott points out in "Seeing like a State" that the modern form of last names came about to meet the needs of tax collectors and conscription officers: If a carpenter in small town in Palestine is called "Yeshua ben Yosef", everyone in town will know who is meant because there are only so many Yeshuas around. This only works as long as you stay in one village or its surrounding. Note that the very common naming pattern "ben Yosef", "Josefsson" etc. identifies someone in relation to their nearest kin and only works within one generation.

The conscription agent (whom did not exist in this form in Roman Palestine) then has a problem to match the different Yeashuas ben Yosefs on his list with actual people. So modern states needed their subjects to have more identifiable names.

You asked when this happened (examples from the book):

  • Qin dynasty China:4th century BC
  • 1427, the Catasto of the Florentine city state
  • 1381, the Wat Tyler rebellion arose, according to Scott, as areaction to registrations and poll taxes
  • There's also an in-depthj example from colonial rule over the Phillipines in tht 19th century

In all these examples, the rich families would have permanent surnames before these registrations, common people would not


As others already had pointed out, having only one name is usually not enough to distinguish people. So you have to add something, a, second given name, religious (saint) name, a patronymic, family name, geographic feature, occupation, age (junior, elder, the second etc) and so on.

In some cultures (e. g. Jewish) there is a tradition to give the kids the name of their grandfather.

That said, the proto-indo-europeans had a tradition to give kids only one name, but a compound word, often composed of the father and mother parts. Thus the names were composed of two roots, like Cleopatra, Argipedes or Bratislava. Sometimas the combinations were meaningful, sometimes meaningless (historical Cleopatra had a family name Philopator, so she was Cleopatra Philopator).

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    If you look at English history, you see the Anglo-Saxon period, where there was a huge variety of given names, and the medieval period, where it seemed everyone was named John and Henry. Not surprising that surnames showed up around the latter period.
    – user15620
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 19:54

I have always assumed that it was just a matter of numbers.

In a small village, there would only be one Bill, Joe, Jim. Bob.

If there were several, you distinguished them in obvious way : by profession, distinguishing (physical) characteristic, place of origin, or parent (etc, etc).

Margret Thatcher, Jack London, Harald Bluetooth, Snorri Sturluson, Scipio Africanus (double hit there).

That's the origin. When they began to stick, though ... I don't know

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