Information about the origin of common surnames is accessible at Ancestry.com. The subscription-based service offers free basic information that includes the surname's literal meaning and its country of origin. More detailed information, including geographical distribution of the name, is made available by enrolling as a member.
Originally, people were known by only their first names, according to Genealogy Today. Surnames were unnecessary in small communities where everyone knew one another. However, as populations grew and communities became less self-contained, the need arose to distinguish among people who had identical names. Over time, distinctive regional practices evolved governing the invention of surnames.
Surnames can be divided into specific types, according to Genealogytoday.com. Some names were based on the given name of the child's father. Others referenced the locality of birth or occupation of the person. (The latter practice was especially common in medieval times.) Finally, some names described physical characteristics of the bearer or were simply chosen for their pleasant sound.
Immigrants often adopted a new family name upon arrival in America in an effort to assimilate into the culture of their adopted country. Unfortunately, recording errors by immigration officials were also commonplace, resulting in the inadvertent alteration of foreign-sounding family names.