What Is the Ethnic Origin of Surnames?

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When Europeans first began assigning each other surnames to differentiate individuals in expanding urban areas, the names frequently referenced someone’s appearance or the place that they were from. Names such as “Long,” “Short,” “Black” and “White” were common.

Sometimes surnames zeroed in on specific physical features, such as the length of someone’s hair or their weight. Other times, names were a direct reference to someone’s heritage. Toth, for instance, one of the most common Slovak surnames, literally means “Slovak.” Surnames weren’t exclusively assigned based on appearance or heritage, however. It was also common to assign last names based on occupation. Thus the last name “Smith” could refer to a blacksmith or an ironsmith.