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What do last names mean?

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Quick Answer

Last names or surnames have a variety of meanings, depending on where they originated. Surnames typically originate from a male ancestor's first name, an area or landmark where the family lived, the occupation of an ancestor, a nickname describing an ancestor or uniquely created by an ancestor.

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Full Answer

Some examples of surnames originating from the father's first name plus a prefix include O'Brian, McDonald and Fitzgerald. In those names, the last part refers to the father's first name while the prefix means "son of." Examples of surnames using the father's surname plus a suffix include Anderson, Gillette, Jones, Olsen and Perez. In each example, the last syllable refers to the son, so son of Andrews, son of Giles, son of John, son of Olaf and son of Pedro.

Surnames originating from a place or landmark include names such as Hill, Church, Moore and Stone. Surnames originating from an ancestor's occupation include Miller, Smith, Taylor, Fisher and Wagner. Surnames coming from an ancestor's nickname include Barret, Peele, Power and Reid. These describe a deceitful person, a bald person, a poor person and a person with red hair respectively.

Many surnames have alternate spellings as they cross language barriers. For example, Reid may also be spelled Reed, and Fisher may also be spelled Fischer.

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