Why did we start using last names?

People have always had names, of course. It’s how we distinguish between one another. But in the big picture, we really haven’t used surnames for all that long.

China might be the exception. Way back in 2852 BC, the emperor Fu Xi standardized the naming system there, for reasons related to census taking. Until the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), people seemed to use matrilineal surnames, but afterward, they had switched to using patrilineal ones.

The oldest surname known to have been recorded anywhere in Europe, though, was in County Galway, Ireland, in the year 916. It was the name “O Cleirigh” (O’Clery).

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In England, the Normans introduced surnames after 1066. At first, names were frequently changed or dropped, but eventually they began to stick and were passed down in a family — by the aristocracy to start with and eventually by the rest of the people. By 1400, most English families, and also those of lowland Scotland, were using surnames that were hereditary. Wives took the husband’s last name, and King Henry VII (1491-1547) ordered that children’s names be recorded under the father’s last name.

Names were frequently spelled differently, though; many of our ancestors did not read or write, and clerks and other scribes wrote names down in various ways. The name Shakespeare, for example, was spelled in various records of the time as Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere, Shakstaff, Sakspere, Shagspere, Shakeshafte and even Chacsper. (Read about finding your ancestors despite spelling variations.)

In Wales, they used a patronymic system of passing down the father’s first name to be used as the child’s surname, and this continued in some parts of Wales until the later Middle Ages. “Ap” or “Ab” meant “son of,” as did “Up-,” “O’,” “Fitz-,” “Witz-,” and “Sky-.” So the son of Rhys was Ap Rhys, which evolved into Preece or Price. The surname Powell came from Ap Howell, Pritchard from Ap Richard, and Bowen from Ab Owen.

The history of Scottish names took two paths. Scots from the Highlands were Gaelic, and when they gave allegiance to a clan, they adopted that clan name as their surname (such as Mackintosh, Macdonald, Buchanan, Drummond, Campbell, Stewart, and Cameron, among others). Scots in the Lowlands tended to have surnames influenced by the English.

In Japan, it was mostly the aristocracy that had surnames before the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. In 1868, the new Meiji government made it mandatory to take a surname.

The Netherlands did not have compulsory surnames until the French emperor Napoleon required them in 1811. Thailand required surnames in 1913 and Turkey in 1934. Some countries still do not use surnames, including Iceland, Tibet, Burma, Java, and many groups in East Africa.

The sources from which names are derived are almost endless: nicknames, physical attributes, counties, trades, heraldic charges, and almost every object known to mankind. Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking at lists of these names – this is how we recognise our ancestors when we find them.

Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames: they were known just by a personal name or nickname.

Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past

When communities were small each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further – leading to names such as John the butcher, William the short, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard. Over time many names became corrupted and their original meaning is now not easily seen.

After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to get passed on. So trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers’ names became fixed surnames – names such as Fletcher and Smith, Redhead and Swift, Green and Pickering, Wilkins and Johnson. By 1400 most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had adopted the use of hereditary surnames.

Most Saxon and early Celtic personal names – names such Oslaf, Oslac, Oswald, Oswin and Osway (‘Os’ meaning God) – disappeared quite quickly after the Norman invasion. It was not fashionable, and possibly not sensible either, to bear them during those times, so they fell out of use and were not often passed on as surnames. However, some names from before the Norman Conquest survived long enough to be inherited directly as surnames, including the Anglo-Saxon Cobbald (famous-bold).

New surnames continued to be formed long after 1400, and immigrants brought in new ones. Many Irish and Highland Scottish names derive from Gaelic personal names, as do those of the Welsh, who only began to adopt the English system of surnames following the union of the two countries in 1536. This is all too far back to be helpful in researching family origins, although the study of a particular surname may be useful when the investigation points to an area where it appears often.

Many individuals and families have changed their names or adopted an alias at some time in the past. This could be for legal reasons, or simply on a whim, but points up the fact that although the study of surnames is vital in family history research, it is all too easy to place excessive emphasis on them.

Your surname may be derived from a place, such as Lancaster, for example, or an occupation, such as Weaver, but this is not necessarily of relevance to your family history. You could be in the position of Tony Blair, whose ancestor acquired his name from adoptive or foster parents.

Another complication is that sometimes two different names can appear to be the same one, being similar in sound, but different in origin. The fairly common name of Collins is an example of this. It comes from an Irish clan name, but it is also one of several English surnames derived from the personal name Nicolas.

Thus you can see that only by tracing a particular family line, possibly back to the 14th century or beyond, will you discover which version of a surname is yours. It is more important to be aware that both surnames and forenames are subject to variations in spelling, and not only in the distant past. Standardised spelling did not really arrive until the 19th century, and even in the present day variations occur, often by accident – how much of your post has your name spelt incorrectly?

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