Origin of Family Names

Giving family names is quite a recent phenomenon. Although, there is evidence that second names were in use in most of Europe since the middle ages, the need to adopt a family name that was passed down through generations did not catch up with people till a couple of centuries back.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 2, 2018
Family Connections
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date when people started using family names.
However, it is believed that origin of family names took place in highly populated areas, where the first name was not enough to distinguish between individuals with the same first name.
This need was felt in different cultures at varied points of time. However, it serves one universal purpose - they give us some interesting insight into past, like who we descended from, where did our ancestors come from or what was their primary occupation.
The time and the manner of origin is very varied. Some early records on names indicate, that the last names might not have been transferred through heredity down a family. However, as time passed, importance of identity through an additional name was realized and the last name which can also be called a surname came to be carried by a family.
It is difficult to determine the exact time when family names originated. However, evidence that are currently available indicate, that use of hereditary surnames (or family names), was first adopted by the Chinese people during the rule of Emperor Fu Xi in 2852 BCE.
This was done to facilitate the census. However, in Europe, origin of family names is loosely traced to 10th century AD. Even in Japan, the last names came to be used only by the aristocrats in as late as 19th century.
From the First Name of the Father (Patronymic): For example, anyone whose father's name was Peter had a surname Peters. However, this is how the Germans and English spelled their surname.
Sons of Peter in Sweden used the surname Peterson, whereas the Danish variation of this last name is Petersen. In Ireland, a grandson of Reilly used O'Reilly, and in Scottish Mc or Mac stands for 'son of '.
From the Place of Dwelling (Toponymic): KirkPatrick was originally used for someone who lived close to the church of St. Patrick. Cliff indicated that one lived close to a steep hill, whereas Ashley means 'a field surrounded by ash trees'.
From One's Occupation: Cooper indicates one who is a barrel maker. Wagner or Waggoner was used for a wagon maker. Blacksmiths came to be called Smiths whereas Knight, as the name suggests was adopted as a surname by one who was conferred knighthood by the monarch.
From Nicknames describing Personal Traits: Literal translation of Armstrong means one with strong arms. Reid indicated one with a ruddy complexion or red hair. Sharp indicates someone who is witty.
Just as it is difficult to say when the use of second names begin, so it is perplexing to point out at what point of time these names (second names) came to run through the family. Family names history reveals, that this transition took place at different places in different times.
Need for a second name to differentiate individuals with the same name was replaced by the need for better and larger grouping for written records for the state. This propelled grouping of individuals who were related in some way or the other.
The most convenient form of grouping was with respect to one's family, which was facilitated by the use of second names that ran through the family, or family names. This impetus for efficient disposal of state functions is cited as a major reason for origin of family surnames.
Family picture
It is amusing to note that most of the family names borne by Americans can be found in most countries of Europe. Though, some names may be absolutely identical to those found in European countries, many sound only similar to those prevalent in the other continent.
The story behind this is quite interesting.As immigrants from various countries started to pour into the American mainland, they were required to register their names with Americans officials. These officials had poor understanding of the native language of these immigrants.
They spelled the names of the incoming foreigners phonetically, that their ears were used to hear. In many cases, the immigrants themselves pronounced the words in a way that sounded more familiar to the English speaking American officials and most newcomers accepted the new names as the American version of their original last names.
For example, German Huber and Blum (meaning flower) became Hoover and Bloom respectively, Dutch Van Rosevelt (meaning, of the rose field) became Roosevelt and Swedish Sjösstrand which means 'seashore' became Seashore.
These examples show that some changes in family names was through direct translation of the words to the English language. Respelling also explains how English Cockbourne became Coburn and French Noel became Nowell. It is through abbreviation that Welsh Davies became Davis and German Goldberger became Goldberg.
Research into this field may not provide conclusive information about one's family's roots. This is most evident in case the family has toponymic origins, as the place from which the surname originated may not be the same centuries later. Also, small changes in spellings due to migration may lead one to incorrect conclusions about one's ancestry.