Last names are traditionally derived from either a person's father's name, the geography near a person's home, an occupation or a nickname. Each language or dialect uses specific markers for these names, such as prefixes, suffixes or even names taken from specific words.
The prefix or suffix of patronymic names literally means "son of." Names such as Johnson or Robertson are either English or Scandinavian in origin as represented by the suffix "-son." Names of Gaelic origin used the prefix "Mac," such as MacDowell, while Irish names begin with "O," such as O'Brien. Names that begin in "Fitz," such as Fitzpatrick, are Norman in origin.
When a last name originated from a geographical location, it is easy to determine the name's ethnic origin. For example, the name Brooks described someone who lived by a brook and because the word is English, the name has its origin in an English-speaking country. Alternatively, a name such as Neville is from the French word for "new town." Last names describing occupations are similarly identified, including English names such as Fletcher, meaning arrow maker. Another such style of name uses the substance the person worked with name such as the Dutch name Aarden, meaning stone.
Some last names were derived from physical features or nicknames. For example, someone with black hair was given the surname Black, Noir or a similar word from whichever region or country he lived. These names describe parts or shapes of the body or emotional disposition, such as Goodman.