How Do Last Names Originate?


Quick Answer

Traditionally, most last names originate from a person's parent's name, the area where a person lives, what a person does for a living, a person's social status or a nickname. Some surname conventions, including having a father's first name as a child's last name, remain in place in some countries; however, in the modern world, most last names have long since lost these associations, and they are associated with certain families purely as a matter of tradition.

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Full Answer

Patronymic last names, where a person takes his last name from his father's first name, are one of the most common last name origins worldwide. In Scandinavian countries, for instance, a man named Magnus whose father was named Soren received the full name Magnus Sorenson.

Locative last names, which originate from the area where a person lives, were also once very common. Locative last names have two main forms: those that roughly describe the area where a person lived and those that specifically reference a person's home town. English examples of the first type of locative last name are Overstreet and Atwater. An example of the latter form is the full name of the famous baroque artist, Michelangelo Merisi, who was more commonly known by his locative last name, Caravaggio.

In most of Western Europe, last names based on what a person or family did for a living are extremely common. Some English examples of occupational last names are Smith, which likely referred to a family a metalworkers, and Miller, for a family that may have traditionally ground grain.

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