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What is a surname?

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Quick Answer

A surname is a common name shared by family members. It is in contrast to the first name or the given name of a person, which is uniquely his own.

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For example, in the case of "John Smith," the first name is John while the surname is Smith. Surname, also called the family name, second name or last name, has its roots in Middle English. It is styled after the Old French word, "surnom" with "sur" meaning over and "nom" meaning name. Some of the surname sources are animals, trades, places and plants. For example, Goldsmith and Cook are trade names while Oak, Sparrow and Fox are animal and plant names.

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