Exploring the meaning behind common surnames

Surname-based organizations and societies


What's in a name? A surname can tell us a lot about a person's ancestry. It can reveal where their family comes from, their occupation, or even their personality traits. In this article, we'll be exploring the meaning behind common surnames and what they can tell us about the people who share them.

The Origins of Surnames

Surnames, also known as last names, were not always a part of people's identity. They were first used in Europe during the Middle Ages to distinguish between people who shared the same first name. Before that, people were often referred to by their occupation, a descriptive phrase, or their father's name. For example, John the Baker or William of Normandy.

Over time, surnames came to be passed down from generation to generation and became an important part of a person's identity. In some cultures, the surname is even more important than the first name.

Location-Based Surnames

Many surnames are derived from a person's location or place of origin. For example, the name "Smith" is one of the most common surnames in the English-speaking world and is derived from the occupation of blacksmith. Other surnames that are location-based include:

  • Johnson - meaning son of John
  • Baker - meaning a person who baked bread
  • Hill - meaning a person who lived on or near a hill
  • Green - meaning a person who lived near a village green

Occupation-Based Surnames

Surnames that are based on occupation are also common. These surnames often describe the work that a person or their ancestors did. For example:

  • Fisher - a person who caught fish for a living
  • Miller - a person who ground grain into flour
  • Taylor - a person who made clothing
  • Cooper - a person who made barrels and casks

Patronymic Surnames

Some surnames are derived from a person's father or ancestor's given name. These are known as patronymic surnames. In many cultures, it is still common for people to use their father's first name as their middle name.

Patronymic surnames include names like Johnson (meaning son of John), MacDonald (meaning son of Donald), and Anderson (meaning son of Andrew).

Descriptive Surnames

Descriptive surnames are based on a person's physical or personality traits. These surnames were often given to a person based on something distinctive about them or their family. Some examples include:

  • Brown - a person with brown hair or eyes
  • Short - a person who was shorter than average
  • Brave - a person who was known for their bravery
  • Sharp - a person who was sharp-witted or clever

Significance of surnames

Surnames can be significant for a number of reasons. They can give us clues about our ancestry, our family history, and our cultural heritage. They can also tell us something about a person's personality, their occupation, or their physical characteristics.

Knowing the meaning behind common surnames can also be helpful for genealogy research. By understanding the origin and significance of a name, we can trace our family history back further and learn more about our ancestors.


Surnames are an important part of our identity and can reveal a lot about our ancestry and heritage. Understanding the meaning behind common surnames can help us gain a better understanding of our family history and cultural background. By exploring the origins of surnames, we can learn more about ourselves and our place in the world.